Run to the Hills!

I've had another period of fairly intensive testing of Invaded.  This little wave kicked off with a trip to the monthly Sunday afternoon Playtest UK meetup in London on a baking hot day. 

As always this was a great get-together, and I played three really interesting games, all very different, created by other players (a dice allocation thingy, a timed co-op, and an abstract tessellation game), but also had a 3-player play of Invaded.  

Now, this test went a similar way to the second game at UK Games Expo: one player attacked the colonial power a bit too early and was smacked down for it, only this time the retaliation was not quite as overwhelming, so the player in question was left dangling in the wind, feeling helpless, while the rest of the game completed around him.

The end of a 3-player game where red got themselves into a world of pain.
This all led to a very interesting discussion about what the game should be: should it be punishing and realistic, or should it be more easygoing and forgiving of mistakes?  To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where on that line it should fall, but I'm getting more of a feeling about it.  I think it should probably be pretty punishing, but hopefully have players able to see the likely outcomes of their actions, even on their first play, and that latter part is somewhere the game is currently falling down.  It also shouldn't be a war game, though violence should be an option that could be a plausible route to victory.

Another thing that came out of this was a thought that, perhaps, under certain circumstances, players should be able to escape from attacks or have options other than trading in favour cards (gained from supplying the colonials with their resource demands), which is currently the only defense.  I labelled this approach the "Run to the hills" strategy in my head, then went home to sleep on it.

Sleep is an essential ingredient in game design.

What this feedback, thinking and sleeping resulted in was a few cards that I labelled "finale cards" (I hate the name, but I'll think of something better later), which effectively provide special bonuses, either in victory points or in capabilities, which can be claimed and used in specific circumstances, and each player may only claim one of these cards during a game.  One of these, for instance, allows you to abandon your villages and be more mobile for the rest of the game, while another protects you from colonial attack as long as you keep them sweet.

Over the following few days I had a couple of two-player games and then went to another Playtest UK meetup, this time in Oxford, where we had a three-player game.  Distilling the key points from player feedback and my observations, I think the key things are:

  • The "finale" cards look like they could well be the making of the game.
  • BUT they absolutely are not right at the moment, neither in their form, how they are gained, or how I handle the opportunities for players to collect them.
  • For a first game, there really needs to be a "standard" start, a bit like used in Catan, as new players rarely have a clue about where to set up.
  • Villages are a bit boring: they need something else to do.  In fact there probably need to be one or two more things to do, though these could easily link to whatever the finale cards evolve into.
  • Remembering to flip colonial movement cards can be a problem with some play groups. 
I'm churning over ideas at the moment about how to address these.  I'm looking at a fairly big change now which mostly has a go at the last of those bullets: flip a colonial move card on every player's turn.  This would require a lot of rethinking, but I think I know how to do this, and along with some reworking of the finale cards it could yield interesting results.  I'll be working on this over the next few days, and then see where this takes us...


Invaded in Birmingham

I said I would go into the results of my playtesting at UK Games Expo, so here we go.  I had two 90 minute slots for playtesting, and as Invaded tends to run for approximately an hour at the moment, one slot is just about perfect for playing once, when you figure in rules explanations, discussions and feedback.
Blurry, blurry, blurry, but I used the good pic in the last post.
You aren't here for the quality photography are you?
My first game was on Friday afternoon when the Playtest Zone was having a slightly slow recruitment period.  I had two people volunteering to play, Amy and Kevin, and I decided to join in to make it a three.  This isn't really ideal, as my taking part means that I can't observe other players as well and may influence play more than I would like, but at this stage I am still building up a feel for the game, and I wanted to get more plays at three or four players if I could.

Overall the game went pretty smoothly, but the start of the game felt a little slow and aimless, partly because of the lack of initial demands, and partly because of the colonial power being slow in its initial advance.  Still!  The end of the game felt a little abrupt and there was a feeling that the colonial power could be more aggressive.  This latter point keeps coming up, and I keep tweaking, but I never seem to get it right.  I think I have probably been to gentle with the tweaks.  I remember some experienced designer (I have a feeling it was either Matt Leacock or Rob Daviau) talking about how when you are adjusting values in games you should go large on the changes, either halving or doubling rather than just tweaking the numbers.  At least to start with.  I clearly haven't internalised this.

I didn't want to change too much before the next test, but after a little thinking I figured that I could make a couple of small changes to the colonial attitude chart to hopefully accelerate the start.  The game at this point involved one colonial move after each player move until the colonial power got very aggressive later in the game, so I thought that possibly I could just up this to two cards at a time at the beginning, so the first few moves would involve the regiments expanding quickly, and then settle down to a more steady pace.  Alongside this I brought the first drawing of an attack card to an earlier stage, meaning that, particularly given the increased pace of movement, there was a chance of an attack at the end of the first round of play.
Can you spot the changes I made?

The Sunday test was astonishing.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a group of four players, Connor, Helen, Heather, and Derek, queueing to play before I was even set up, and they sat attentively through my inexpert rules explanation.  As an aside, at this stage of a game's development I find explanations difficult as the game is in a state of flux and I haven't yet got a handle on the best way to explain it.  Later on, when the game is relatively stable and I am teaching the game multiple times between revisions, the explanation can get a lot smoother.  Hopefully we'll get there with Invaded sometime soonish.

Anyway, the game started and over the first few turns I found myself needing to intervene or answer questions less and less.  One of the players wasn't quite clicking on some of the rules, but the others were able to put her straight without my help.  The game seemed to be flowing nicely, there was a little table talk, and the players all seemed well engaged.

Then something cool happened.

One of the players figured that they liked the idea of the victory points available from attacking he colonial power.  I had to clarify the attack system a bit, but the attack worked fine, knocking out a couple of colonial units and earning a couple of points of enmity.  Then the counterattacks started, and at the end of the round the attacking player, who didn't have many of the favour cards which are used as defences, got knocked back to just possessing a single village, and the following turn got wiped off the board.  He was logically eliminated one round (about 10 minutes of play) before being actually eliminated, triggering the end game condition I wasn't expecting to see for some time.

This whole turn of events was treated as a good bit of fun by the players, but revealed a part of the game that hasn't really shown up before.  We have now seen that the enmity system can result in devastating attacks from the colonial power, meaning that a player must think hard before attacking them and be ready for the potential counterattack.  I need to think about this and whether I need to protect players is some way from making a boneheaded move like attacking when they are not ready, but at the moment I am inclined to leave things more or less as they are and hopefully just make it clear in rules explanations just how dangerous attacks are.  On the other hand, it would be cool to make it so that the potential gain is enough to make players willing to risk it, so perhaps the victory point payoff for enmity tokens could go up.

More generally, I think the colonial behaviour is moving in the right direction, but is not there yet.  I am planning to make use of the different location terrains (the map cards are currently different colours, but this is purely decorative so far) as an input for deciding what moves the regiments make, which will make things rather less predictable than they are now.

Whoa!  An idea has just come to mind.  If I make a load more movement cards than are necessary and use a subset of them for any given play, it means that there will be a heap of uncertainty about what the colonial power will do at the start, but players should be able to learn the colonials' preferences and be able to predict its movements to some degree.  That has to be worth trying...

Anyway, thanks to all the testers from last weekend: you were all great and have given me a load to think about.  Now can I improve things some more...?


Completely Expo'ed

Wow, that was a heck of a weekend, with playtesting, wearing a red t-shirt, meeting heaps of people, negotiating rain and Take That fans, quite a lot of caffeine, and not as much actual playing of games as you might expect for a visit to UK Games Expo.

TL;DR: A couple of Invaded playtests, useful feedback, played some other stuff too, met and talked with a lot of people, had a great time.

So, I arrived on Friday morning, having been fortunate to meet friends en route at Oxford station, and had three hours available to explore the hall before my first playtesting slot in the afternoon.  The Playtest Zone was relatively quiet on Friday, but doing steady business, and I ended up joining in a game of Invaded to make a three-player test with a couple of innocent victims.  Normally at an event like this I would sit out and watch, but joining in was quite useful this time.  After this I donned the red shirt uniform of the Zone volunteers and helped pull in additional players for other designers.
A few rounds into the Sunday test of Invaded and it's all gone a bit pair shaped for green.

The close of the trade hall was followed by a trip to a seminar room where I was volunteering to help at the designer-publisher speed dating event.  This was a small and intense event with twelve game designers setting up one of their games on a table and then being visited by representatives of twelve publishers in a series of five-minute pitch meetings.  This was absolutely exhausting to watch, and I'm not sure how well I would do in those circumstances, so I'm really impressed with how all the designers did.  It's also interesting to note that, due to the screening process, which involved the publishers who planned to attend, that all of the designers had at least four of the companies interested in their games, so while nobody was interested in everything, there was already a feeling that nobody's time would be wasted.  (As an aside, I ended up having an interesting chat about these events with Seth Jaffee, who just turned up to see what was going on, and ended up signing my newly-acquired Eminent Domain expansion.)

Friday evening was rounded off by another designer-publisher event, this time an informal networking opportunity.  To be honest, I didn't make the most out of this, though a number of other designers took advantage of the chance to show some of their games to a few publishers, so hopefully someone got a break there.  I did, however, get a chance to play a prototype of a great game about badass princesses defending their kingdom from their evil uncle, which I really want to be able to buy some time soon.  After that it was a trudge through rain and a sea of Take That fans to get to my hotel for the night.

On Saturday I spent the morning working at the Playtest Zone, which started off being pretty hard work to pull in potential testers, but after barely half an hour people were queueing up to join test games, so the challenge was actually to find somewhere for them to play.  This is a fantastic problem to have, and it is lovely to see that so many people are interested in prototypes.  In fact, talking to a few people it is clear that for some of them coming to play works-in-progress is a major part of the Expo experience.

My afternoon was free, so I wandered about talking to people, playing a couple of demo games, and joining in a rather nice prototype about Jazz music in the Playtest Zone.  I was knackered after all this, so returned to the hotel reasonably early, where I stumbled across a lovely group of people who let me play a game of Giants with them for a while.

This seems to be developing into a pattern for me: Saturday evening is the time I just end up having a relaxed gaming session with strangers away from the main convention sites.  Long may this continue -- it is times like this which remind me of some of the reasons I love board games so much.

Finally we get to Sunday, when I started off the day by  with another 90 minute slot for testing Invaded in the Playtest zone.  I got in early and was just starting to set up when a couple of people came around and asked if they and the other couple of members of their family could play.  This was amazing and the upshot was that by the time the official start of my time had come, we were already well into the rules explanation and could get started really promptly.  I'll go into what I learned from the Invaded playtests in a later post.

For most of the rest of the day I was hanging out with S and Miss B, who had come up for the last day, though Miss B spent a good chunk of the time in the kids' roleplaying games corner, which is a highlight of her year.

So, that's what I did with my weekend.  I'm still processing some of what went on, but it was great to build up a little morale and direction.


Nearly Ready to Invade Expo

It's just a few days until UK Games expo, and I need to get my biggest objective for the event sorted: stabilise a prototype of Invaded that can be run at the Playtest Zone with innocent, unsuspecting members of the gaming public.  That means I need to be reasonably confident that it will play OK and not collapse under its own weight.  It doesn't have to be perfect, of course, but I don't want to waste the valuable time of the playtesters.

So, after my recent frenzy of high speed testing and development, the latest revision of Invaded was a fairly small change in time to get to a Playtest UK meetup in Oxford (at the Thirsty Meeples boardgame cafe) where I played the game with a couple of fellow designers.

Here we are about 2/3 of the way through a test game of Invaded,
with the colonial forces getting pretty well advanced and starting to launch attacks.
The upshot is that we identified a few problems, which were mostly things that I already knew about or suspected, and weren't show-stoppers.  We had some useful discussion about possible ways to fix things and additions to the game to fill gaps, and also noted a few minor things that could do with being tidied up.  Overall, though, I am getting more confident that the core of the game is looking at least OK.

Given all that, I'm planning to make a couple of small changes and then spend the next couple of days getting the prototype ready.  If a couple of plays with fresh people don't show up anything structurally wrong I plan to move on to looking at those gaps I mentioned (and it may turn out they are not really a major issue) and then move on to an exciting new stage of playtesting: checking balance and looking for interesting ways to break the game.

As for UK Games Expo, that is, as you may know, at the Birmingham NEC from the 2nd to the 4th June.  I have so far booked two playtesting sessions: 14:30-16:00 on Friday, and 10:00-11:30 on Sunday.  I will probably leave it at just those sessions, though I will also be volunteering at the Playtest Zone at various other times, so please drop by and say hello -- and play a prototype, ideally!


Intense Invaded Iteration

One of the big challenges in game design is getting playtesting done, particularly early on in the process.  You need to get people willing to sit down with an incomplete and unpolished game, and you need to be able to get feedback from them, analyse that feedback, and use it to improve the game.  Actually, some of the best feedback is gained simply by watching the players (Are they bored? Are they misunderstanding parts of the rules?...), but discussions can also yield really useful input, though it is not always useful in the way that the testers think.  For instance, testing a fairly early version of Boogie Knights resulted heaps of suggestions for the "one little thing" that would make the game better; in the end, most of the issues prompting those suggestions were addressed by removing a whole load of cruft from the game instead.

Anyway, after a number of weeks of struggling to get much testing done, I've just had a really intense few days of work on Invaded and now I need to focus on pulling together all the elements that have been thrown up into the air.
The end of the latest playtest with three players.

It all started last Thursday.  I have a friend at work who is also a neophyte game designer and we have recently started to use occasional lunch breaks to test each other's designs.  The available time is limited, but I think we're both finding it useful.  This particular Thursday we got to play a few turns of Invaded to shake out a few cobwebs, and based on that I made a couple of minor tweaks to the rules before...

The same evening I had a chance to head off to meet up with another, far more experienced, game designer who had agreed to meet me in a pub in a town about half way between our homes.  This game revealed that the resource production was a bit too free and confirmed that my simple market mechanism was just taking up space without adding anything of worth to the game.  We also figured out that one of the big problems with colonial movement would be helped by giving a faster flow of reinforcements to the landing site, plus that the gaining of objectives might be better with a set of face-up cards available for anyone to claim.

All this was good stuff and left me with a couple of days to make some minor changes to components and a few tweaks to the rules before it was in to London for the monthly Sunday Playtest UK meetup at the Jugged Hare.

I joined in to make up a four player game with some other designers who managed to inflict some significant damage on the state of the game, most notably managing to totally rip the heart out of the objectives system, which basically meant the victory conditions would need fundamental reworking.  A major part of this was the observation that the objective cards just didn't seem to fit the thematic structure of simply trying to not get consigned to history in the face on an invasion.  Oh, and the resource economy still had huge problems.

At this point my morale was beginning to suffer as I was starting to wonder if I would ever get the game into a decent form, but the (very welcome but sometimes hard to take) criticisms were counterbalanced by an almost universal support for the game's concept.  Basically, everyone seems to like the idea, so all I need to do is make a game that lives up to the promise.  Easy, right?  Nope.

However, something that has come from a few playtesters is that some people like the idea that you start the game in a pretty strong position and then have to manage your decline so you survive better than anyone else.  This seems to run counter to a philosophy that I would usually want to follow that it is nicer and more fun to manage a building process than demolition.  And yes there are many counter-examples, but it's a decent rule of thumb.  Maybe if I just run with the idea of "get smacked down more slowly than your rivals", that might put some people off but would be a distinctive feature of the game.  The theme suggests that this is what is going on, so why am I fighting it?

I had arranged for a couple of friends to visit for playtesting the next day, so I did a bit of editing files on my return from London, and then after work on Monday I was frantically printing, cutting and sleeving cards for the next test.

And, of course, the next test was full of more problems.  I still hadn't got the resource system right: I was using a push-your-luck mechanism which was fun for many people but annoying for others and was a bit incongruous.  Players ended up with too many units and not enough to do after a few rounds, and the colonial forces were really vulnerable to a concerted attack.

So, the game still sucked and I had got yet another playtest booked for the next day.  The plan was to do several tests to help me get the game into a decent shape for a public playest at UK games expo at the beginning of June.  At this stage, though, I was wondering what I was doing to myself.

One more revision, fitting around work and sleep as best I could.  This time I totally changed the resource gathering system, reduced the limit of the number of villages and warbands that could be built, and split colonial moves and attacks into separate decks so that the regiments would move every time all the players have taken an action, but only attack after all player actions are completed.


Well, it is still a long way from perfect, but the Tuesday test was the first time I didn't end up with my head proverbially in my hands.  It actually felt like a game this time.  One with holes, too much slack time, and plenty of inconsistencies, but at last I think I have the foundation on which I can build.

The next time I am hoping to playtest is likely to be Sunday, so I have a few days to get things together and see what I can do about some of the problems from Tuesday, but at last I think I am on the way.  Until the wheels fall off again...

I'd like to take a moment here to thank all the brave people who have helped me so much over the last few days.  Phil T, Dave M, Fabio, Bez, Dean, Alice, Phil W, Barry, Fran, and Lee, ladies and gentlemen, I salute you all!

Now, back to the grindstone...


Don't Despair Despite the Devastating Dirigible Demolition

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy.  So it is with initial prototypes and playtesters.  Or it is with mine, anyway.

I've just had an evening with one of my long-suffering playtesters, trying out the Dirigible battle game, which is really intended to be for higher player counts, but I want the game to be at least reasonably amusing for two.  The session started out deeply flawed (in other words it totally sucked at first), but we made a few tweaks during play and ended up with something that I think is certainly better.
Some point blank unpleasantness.
The major positive I had was that the way players get a random hand of attack cards (each allows an attack in one of six possible directions) seems to be a real feature of the game, as you manoeuvre to get into position to make best use of them.  The huge down side at first was that movement of the other players is just so unpredictable that nobody was going to actually land a hit on anyone.

The main tweak we made was to have simultaneous selection of movement and attack cards, as was the original plan, but then to resolve these all sequentially with a different first player each time, and allow you to choose to use one or both of your movement card's actions: speed and rudder changes.  This resulted in making the airships a lot more controllable and adding a lot more of a tactical dimension to the game as you manoeuvre, trying to be ready for the phases when you will be moving ahead of your opponent.

The down side to this was that, with attacks automatically hitting as per the original rules, there just seemed too much control.  We didn't try this, but my feeling is that a simple die roll for an attack would fit in nicely here.  Attack dice are a familiar trope of combat games, so wouldn't feel out of place here, and a simple rule like, "roll higher than the range on a d6" would probably be a good thing to try first.

Anyway, with the re-jigged rules we actually had a bit of fun here, despite the card texts not being quite right any more.  My next pass will involve reworking those cards (especially the damage cards, which need changes to compensate for the changes), then testing again on a small scale with die rolls for attacks.  Then, with a little luck, I'll be able to get enough testers together to try this out as a team game.


Dirigible Derring Do

It's funny how ideas come along sometimes.  A few days ago I watched a video review of a game called Zephyr: Winds of Change, and when I managed to stop fixating on the game's cover art (is it just me, or is it absolutely dreadful?) I ended up thinking about airship combat.  Zephyr is a cooperative game, with what looks like pretty abstracted combat, but I was thinking about competitive games.

Then something ticked off in my head.  There is an old, classic game called Sopwith, originally published in the 1970's, and which appears to have been out of print for a very long time now.  This is a shame.  It's one of those games that I would love to get hold of one day, but when copies are available they tend to be really rather expensive.  Anyway, the core of Sopwith is simultaneous action programming by putting markers on action spots behind privacy screens, then resolving the programs when everyone is done.  This works brilliantly as a team game when everyone is trying to avoid shooting their team mates by accident.  Sopwith has been a popular game for postal play, and you can see a set of rules here if you are interested.

Anyway, airships and Sopwith-style action programming...  What's not to like?  Inspiration struck and I got to constructing a prototype...

A solo playtest of a one-on-one battle which didn't go quite as planned.

I seem to be going through a bit of a purple patch for creating initial prototypes when I should probably actually be refining existing games, but I haven't had many playtesting opportunities lately, so this is how I manage to keep myself in the game, as it were.

So the game that has the working title of 'Dirigible' has a hex board (no features on it as yet), little airship standees (I could have used something else as a proxy, but I fancied making these), a small board for each player on which to record speed, steering and damage withstood, a pile of cards for selecting manoeuvres. and a pile of cards for selecting attacks.  I have enough components for two players at the moment, though I'm planning to go up to six.  Each round, you choose three movement cards from a hand of five, and an attack card to go with each from a selection of attack and no-attack cards, then the whole lot gets resolved afterwards, going through the three moves in turn.

So far I have tested solo, playing two airships battling each other, and it turns out that it is really easy to screw up and fly off the board -- which I have decided is a way of being defeated.  I'm sure that if multiple players each controlled one airship they wouldn't make as many mistakes as I did, but even so, it is very easy to get things wrong.

As a result of my early testing, I have decided two major things.  The first is that the size of the board I was using was just not big enough for the necessary manoeuvring, so I have made an extra couple of board sections to improve on that.  The second thing is a bit more fundamental: it is pretty difficult to plan across three action phases, and while this may make for an interesting challenge for players, I would rather the game was more accessible, so future tests will involve selecting one move and attack at a time.  This does move things even further from the original inspiration of the Sopwith game, but that is not a bad thing: I can base a game on something else, but if I slavishly adhere to the original I am not really creating anything new, I need to just go where the playtest data takes me...