Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What a difference a month makes... Deities & Demigods playtest, new version

A whole month ago at Game Design Attack #4 I had a test play of Deities & Demigods. I posted some notes after that play and updated my prototype, but never got the game back to the table... until tonight.

I've been very busy with Chimera Station, which will be on Kickstarter later this year, so I haven't been playing much in the way of other prototypes, but tonight I finally got back to D&D. For starters, I can officially say that lesson #1 is this: Don't let a month go by between playtests!

I rushed home from work to get my table cleaned up and get the game set up. I remember basically how the game is played, and I had a vague idea of the changes I'd made... but as it's been a whole month since I've even thought about the game, when my players showed up I found myself floundering and reading through my marked up rules to see what we were going to be doing. It might have been even worse because these players had played an older version of this game, so they sort of remembered how to play -- but half of what they remembered is out of date!

So the start was a little shaky, and I felt dumb not to be more prepared... but once we got going things worked alright... for the most part. I did have to audible a card that I'd forgotten to update, and a rule or two that didn't jive with the new changes. But at the very least we were able to successfully finish the game.

In my last post I outlined changes I'd made to the prototype, I'll go through those here and comment on how they went in play:

* Use only 4 boards (at all player counts).
I did use 4 boards, and it worked pretty well. I had a note that maybe 3 boards would be enough for a 2p game, but I guess I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

* Put 2 cities and 1 quest on each city board (2 quests and 1 city on the back).
 This worked pretty well in conjunction with the previous point. This makes for 4-8 each of cities and quests. I made a note that as a rule during setup, make sure there are at least 5 of each... I think 4 would be too few.

* Rather than interacting with cities and quests from adjacent nodes, have players travel into cities or onto quest locations.
This was a little shaky because the board wasn't really designed with this in mind, but I think it worked. The players had some trouble with it, but I suspect most of their concerns could be alleviated with better graphics/presentation/explanation.

I think I'd intended for only troops to enter cities and only boats to enter the seabound quest locations, but in  practice that seemed weird (and our board setup had an isolated lake with a quest that no boat could get to), so I ruled that troops could get to the quests even in water hexes. And I'd drawn little rivers into the cities from the hex sides that were adjacent to water, so I rules that boats could enter cities, but only from where waterways were shown. After the game I drew similar land areas leading to the Quests on water hexes, but I wonder f that's going to screw things up.

* At the suggestion that a victory point for level 1 Hephaestus might be too much, I might try changing that to 1 gold (or, 1 gold per city controlled to help incentivize controlling cities in the early and mid game).
I tried "1 gold per city controlled", and maybe that happened once. I definitely would prefer "per city where you have a building" (or similar "per building you have built")... but I'm not really sure that's better than 1 VP. The designer that made the suggestion was very adamant that it need to change. He was comparing it to the level 1 abilities of the other deities, none of which score you points. But I'm not sure that's a fair comparison... I think the proper comparison would be Level 1 Hephaestus compared with higher level Hephaestus. But I will continue to try the "gold per city" thing, including the Home City which I will be instituting for the next game.
 
* I'm contemplating changing Hera's income to "1 gold + 1 gold per city controlled" to help incentivize controlling cities in the early and mid game.
I didn't try this, but did try it for Hephaestus level 1 (see above). I didn't like tying it to "control" of a city, might be better "per building".

I still might try upping the Hera income to "1 gold per building" as well (or instead), but that doesn't make much thematic sense, and I'm not sure if it should be both here and on Hephaestus level 1.

* I've had combat in the game from the outset because I figured it went with the theme, and I'd hoped it wouldn't be much different than area majority such as El Grande. However, I'm not a player who really likes direct confrontation in games, and I think this is not the type of game that would really go along with that kind of interaction. So I will try removing combat altogether, or at least make it expensive and rare like I did in Escalation.
I dropped the combat altogether and to be honest, nobody missed it. It had never really come up before anyway (maybe because the board was too big before).

Instead the rule is that you may pass through but not end movement on a node containing opposing units. Any number of units can co-exist in a city, and in fact control of a city is based on number of units there.

I had to change a couple of cards that dealt with combat. I changed them so they had to do with gaining or losing control of a city.

* I'm considering removing the deck of building cards, and instead allowing building tokens to count toward control of a city... it would be easy and intuitive to count control that way, just count up all of your wooden pieces in the hex. I'm not sure if I like that idea or not though, and I suppose if I didn't want buildings to count toward control, they could be punchboard tokens rather than wooden discs in the final game. It would reduce components and clutter to just cut the building deck though.
I liked the idea of cutting the building deck, but I'd want to reconfigure the bonus icons... to approximate this I just said A=D, B=E, and C=F... that part was fine, but changing the buildings like this was a big mistake.

You lose a unit to build (which I like, as it keeps Hades relevant), so making the building count toward control doesn't actually gain you anything. So without getting a building card, there's really not much incentive to build buildings over artifacts! In fact, I'm wondering if there ever really was such incentive... I think the Building Cards might be a little more powerful than the artifacts in some cases, but only in some cases, and only maybe (there ARE a number of building cards with end game bonus scoring opportunities).

If I'm going to remove the building cards, then buildings would have to be a whole lot better than they are now. But I think I want the building cards back. In addition to bringing them back, I might try counting the buildings as 2 units toward control, so they help you control a city AND they give you a powr and potentially set collection scoring. That will make them better than Artifacts for sure.

To parallel quests, maybe there should be a reward for the first player to build in a city... but what? I don't think a devotion or minimum devotion bump would make any sense. Maybe some gold? Maybe you get to place a 2nd building marker (counts as extra influence toward controlling the city)? Maybe you place the building token upside down, indicating that it's worth 3 influence instead of 2?

* If I cut the building deck, I'd have to adjust the scoring icons... instead of 4 each of 6 icons, I'd probably do 3 each of 4 icons. I could also consolidate the 12 best card effects I currently have between artifacts and buildings.
I didn't do this (see above). I would do it if I do end up ditching the building deck, but currently I think I'd like to keep it.

I suppose I could combine them into 1 deck, where a building gets you both the building marker and a card, and the artifact only gets you a card, but that might be tougher to swallow thematically.

* I keep going back and forth on the turn order track and what happens if you gain initiative and land on another player's marker. Currently you always go on the bottom of the stack, no matter which direction you were moving your counter. I might change that to top of stack if advancing and bottom of stack when losing initiative and see how that goes. I think I was trying to be consistent, and I liked always going to the bottom of the stack vs always going to the top, but maybe that consistency isn't necessary.
I did try it with top-of-stack if advancing and bottom-of-stack if descending, and I think I did like it better that way.

* I don't know if this will be necessary, but if I decide I need a fail-safe way to hard cap the game at 6 cycles, I could try this... take all the Hera cards out of the deck, and instead have a supply of 6 Hera cards. At the end of each cycle, add a Hera to the deck. When that stack of 6 runs out, that's the last cycle (6 total). The game end may trigger before that, but it would keep the max length to 6 cycles. This would make Hera come up less often in the first 2 cycles, and more often in cycles 4-6, which might actually be good to facilitate more opportunities to earn the favor of the god cards.
This is still a viable idea, but I don't know if I like it. I might try it some time. I'll note that I only really need 5 Hera cards for that, not 6... add 1 at the end of each cycle, and when there isn't one to add (after the 6th cycle), the game is over.

* With a smaller board it's possible that 4 cycles would no longer be too few, so I could even change the above idea to 5 Hera cards instead of 6 (for a maximum of 5 cycles).
Not sure about this (see above), but as I mentioned, this would only require 4 Hera cards, not 5.

Now that I have the game more fresh in my mind, and I've given those things a try, I am well armed to take the game with me to London tomorrow (er, today... in about 12 hours) and hopefully play it with some people while I'm there.

Monday, April 25, 2016

2, 3, 4, 5... That's the way we subitize!

 I learned a word a few years ago from a friend of mine -- a word that I don't use nearly enough. Not that it's a common word that would come up in conversation very often, it's actually a fairly obscure word that a lot of people probably haven't heard. But there's at least 1 context in which I think I will start to use it more often.

 And the word is (drum roll please)...


 The context in which I intend to use the word subitize more is iconography. I'm currently working on a game for TMG called Chimera Station, by League of Gamemakers member Mark Major. In Chimera Station, you employ a team of alien workers to build a space station, and in order to make your workers better at various jobs you splice brains, claws, leaves, and tentacles onto them. As you build the station you'll be adding numerous modules to the board, each one representing a new worker placement space:



 I've been working with graphic designer Daniel Solis, trying to express a lot of information onto these small tiles, with a little room for background art where possible. If you've played a game that has tiles like these then you probably know what I mean... there's a lot to convey, and a few different ways to try it:
  • Some games try to go language independent, replacing all English text with icons. This can lead to an overwhelming amount of hieroglyphics if the effects to be iconized are too complicated or varied.
  • Some games forego icons altogether and just use English text to convey all the information. The problem here is that text takes up a lot of space, especially if it's specific and thorough. Trying to abbreviate text to take up less space can be harder to read than the over-iconizing mentioned above!
  • Some games use a combination of text and in-line icons, which is what we decided to do for Chimera Station. On the down side it's not language independent... but on the up side, it offers the best chance at fitting the necessary info best and most clearly.

 It's that third option I'd like to talk about today. The first pass of the modules with in-line icons (see left images below) did manage to reduce the text, making the tiles more readable. However, the text is small, the space is compact, and most players will not even be reading it face up... so I asked Daniel to show multiple icons rather than a number followed by an icon ([coin][coin] rather than 2[coin]):

The parenthetical clarification was removed from the tile - it will be included in the rulebook. The right image shows a sample background, not the right one for this module.


 The new format looked great on tiles that only had 2 or three icons on them, but it introduced a different problem on modules with more icons on them. For example, Cryogenics allows you to trade a genetic component in for 6 coins...

Six coin icons is probably easier to read upside down from across the table. The cost (top) and VP value (bottom) on this tile got adjusted, but that's not relevant to this discussion.

 While I do think the version with 6 icons looks better than the original version, it's difficult to tell at a glance exactly how many coins you get. Which brings me to the whole point of this article... subitizing.

 The definition above indicates that humans are limited to being able to subitize about 7 items, but a more common or practical limit is more like 4 or 5 items. If you see fewer than 5 items, you can immediately know how many items there are without having to count them one by one. That's called Perceptional Subitizing.

 It could be that the 6 coin icons are too many for players to comfortably subitize, but I wasn't happy with the idea of going back to the original text version either. So I tried a simple tweak: I added a gap in the middle of the row of coin icons, separating the 6 items into two sets of 3 icons.

 Three items are easy enough for anyone to subitize, so breaking the coin icons up in to two sets will allow players to fairly easily combine 3+3 and identify 6 icons. This is called Conceptual Subitizing:

It's much easier to identify "6 coins" in the right image than the left one, isn't it? The tile also looks a lot better with the correct background :)

 There are only a couple of tiles in Chimera Station that have more than 5 icons on them, and for those I'm hopeful this format will work out.

 So, what do you think?

Were you familiar with "subitization", the concept if not the term?

In general, can we can count on people's ability to subitize in order to help create useful iconography in these games we play?

How have you used this concept in your games, even if you didn't know what it was called?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Should I include Emperor Avatars in Oblivion? Or make them a separate mini-expansion/promo?


A while ago I made something for Eminent Domain that I referred to as Emperor Avatars. These were tiles that players would draft during setup that confer some bonuses or abilities. They were intended to be an another Scenario sort of thing. I enjoyed them, and I think they worked pretty well, but I haven't done anything with them in a long time.

Now that I'm more actively working on Oblivion (PnP files are on BGG at the Tasty Tester's Guild!) I'm wondering if I should include them in that expansion -- possibly instead of Scenarios.

I recently added a host of Prestige planets and Prestige tech (for a while I wasn't going to include tech in Oblivion), and of course I already have Agendas and Clout tokens... Does the expansion really need more content? With the new tech existing it's likely I should make some Scenarios that use it, so maybe Emperor Avatars aren't necessary here.

On the other hand, I could make them into a promo item or mini expansion (or split them into a series of promos) and maybe give them away at conventions, use them as KS bonuses for Oblivion, include them in other games (perhaps Eminent Domain Origins?), or sell them for cheap.

What do you think makes the most sense here?

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Crusaders and Oblivion print and play opportunities on Tasty Testers Guild!

We have something which I think is an underutilized resource... it's the Tasty Testers Guild (number 1976) over at BoardGameGeek.

In the Tasty Testers Guild we sometimes post PnP files for upcoming TMG games when they're ready for blind testing. It has worked well in the past for games such as Exotica and Battlecruisers, but sometimes I put a game up there and get little if any response.

I currently have PnP files for two of my upcoming games (through TMG of course), and if you follow this blog you will recognize both:

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done

Crusaders is fully blind-test ready, with a rules doc as well as up to date PDF files, and the game is very nearly in its final form. If anyone has a really great suggestion for the rules I'd consider it, but I'm mostly concerned with perfecting the game end trigger timing (number of influence in the supply at each player count) and balance of the faction powers. I probably won't include all 18 of them in the game -- I might cut it down to the best or most fun and interesting 10 or so.

If you play, please let me know what you think, where the game is fun and where it wasn't, which faction powers you liked best and least, and what you think of the game end trigger (was the game too long or too short, and if so by how much?).

---


And now that Exotica has arrived and interest in EmDo is stirring:

Eminent Domain: Oblivion

Oblivion has come a long way, through several distinct iterations over the last 4 years or so. I finally have the Agenda system where I think I want it, that part of the game seems to be working very well.

I have only recently added all the Prestige planets, the whole idea of Annexing planets, an all of the tech cards, so it's likely some of them are too good or not good enough, or that I'm trying to add too much to the game.

If you play this one, please first off tell me if the description in the Tasty Testers Guild thread made sense (sorry, I don't really have a rules doc for this one yet), and tell me what you think of the Politics role, the Agendas, the Annexing of planets, the effects on the Prestige planets, and the existence of (and usefulness of) the Prestige tech cards.

Now would be a perfect time to start getting some feedback on both of those games!

Thanks, and I look forward to seeing feedback in the Tasty Testers Guild!


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tips for playtesters

With UnPub 6 coming up this weekend, the State Of Games podcast this week was all about tips for playtesters. It's a good listen for people heading to UnPub or any designer convention, or otherwise participating in their designer friends' playtests.

To prepare for that podcast, Jessica putout a call for tips from designers to help players of prototypes contribute in the most helpful way when playtesting a game. I answered the call, and they summarized some of my comments on the show. I thought I'd share my advice here for anyone interested in reading the entirety of the email I sent them :)

"What are some specific tips you have for playtesters testing your games?"
I'm going to begin this answer as I often do, with the phrase "It depends."
The type of feedback you're after will depend on what stage your game is in, so as a designer it's probably a good idea to clearly communicate that to the players before you begin. Otherwise you'll end up with players interrupting the game to make suggestions about the graphic design of the player board that you just threw together to facilitate playtesting and will obviously be redone by a professional should the game ever see print!

TIP #1: Just play the game like it's a normal game.
In most cases when I'm playtesting a game I just want players to play it as if it were a finished game that came off the store shelf. Unless I specifically request it, I'm not looking for a player to go out of their way to break the game by doing things that aren't in pursuit of their own victory. Especially in early testing... finding game breaking loopholes and edge cases is my job as the designer, not your job as the player.

Now, if a you see a loophole that you can abuse in pursuit of victory, then by all means abuse it! But it's a waste of time to intentionally try to torpedo the game while doing something you're not realistically going to do in the game.
It's a bit different in a late-stage playtest when the game is nearly done. At that point it might be good to intentionally do something stupid to make sure the game holds up. I wrote a blog post on the League of Gamemakers about making sure a bad play or mistake won't keep a player from enjoying the game experience.

Tip #2: Avoid commenting on graphic design of a prototype.
Occasionally you'll playtest a game by someone who's self publishing, or a game that's got near final art, and in that case it might be acceptable to point out flaws in the graphic design. But in MOST cases when you're playtesting a game, it will have prototype components, lovingly hand crafted by the designer. That's secret code for "cobbled together in photoshop (if not MS Word), and printed in B&W -- and if you're lucky there'll be google image art here and there." This is NOT the final graphic design of the game, and the designer knows that.
Some game designers are also graphic artists, and their prototypes make the rest of us want to hide in a ditch, ashamed of the bland, boring look of our handmade games. But even those designers are unlikely using final graphic design and iconography.
My point is that interrupting the game to say "you know, this icon should really be a triangle" or "your green and red centimeter cubes you got in bulk from an education supply store aren't colorblind friendly" is probably more disruptive than it is useful.

I hereby apologize in advance for any difficulty you have learning and playing any designer's prototype that hasn't had the benefit of professional graphic design!


TIP #3: Don't interrupt play with suggestions mid-game.
When an idea or suggestion comes up, it's tempting to bring it up before you forget, while it's fresh in your mind. But that can be very disruptive to the playtest, so often times it's better to make a note of it and bring it up after the game.

TIP #4: Bring paper and pencil to a playtest session.
Speaking of note taking, it would be awesome if the designer handed out paper and pencil at the beginning of the playtest so that players could take notes of their thoughts during the game in order to revisit them later. Some designers do this, others (like me) would if they ever remembered to... but there's nothing stopping you from bringing your own paper and pencil to a playtest session!

TIP #5: Stay on topic during feedback sessions.
Often times feedback sessions aren't very structured, and that's fine. But if a designer asks a specific question, or asks about a specific part of the game, it's probably more helpful to address that question and only that question until the topic changes, rather than sidetrack the conversation with other unrelated thoughts (even if they're well thought out and good thoughts).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Treat the problem, not the symptom

Things go wrong in playtests all the time. When something goes wrong in a playtest, it may just be an anomaly of that particular game -- but if the same thing comes up in multiple plays, then it's probably indicative of some kind of problem with the design. As designers, it's our job to identify these problems and fix them.

This may be harder than it sounds though. Sometimes the issue experienced in a playtest is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. While it may be worthwhile to fix the symptom, what we really want to do is determine the underlying problem and fix that, or else another symptom is likely to rear its ugly head before long.


By way of example I'll illustrate what I mean:

When I was originally testing Eminent Domain, instead of the 5 different role cards in the game there were 6. Produce and Trade were separate cards, not combined into one card. Produce/Trade cycles had the potential to be more lucrative than other scoring paths, but the logistics behind having to take the two separate roles, and having cards for each in your deck, were supposed to balance that out. However, in practice I found that Produce/Trade strategies were frustrating to pursue because it was hard to score well off of the cycle. So hard in fact that players would ignore that strategy altogether.

At first I tried doubling the value of a Produce/Trade cycle, thinking that with higher rewards, players would pursue the strategy. In theory that worked, I could keep increasing the value of trading until it was worth going for. But that solution treated the symptom, not the problem. The more valuable I made trading, the more variable and swingy that strategy (and the game) would become... a player trying to produce and trade might never get their cards in the right order, and when they did they'd get a disproportionately high reward, like a slot machine. The real problem here was that it sucked to have to fill your deck with 2 different cards that were terrible on their own just so that MAYBE you can use them to collect lots of points.

Fortunately one of my players (thanks Wystan!) suggested putting both roles on the same card so that whenever you draw that card, it'd work for either the Produce role or the Trade role - whichever you need at the time. This solution ignored the symptom and went straight for the throat of the underlying problem. As soon as I tried it I immediately knew it was the right solution. And as a result of solving the problem, it eliminated the symptom as well.

So let that be a lesson to you. When something goes wrong in your playtests, don't take it at face value. Make sure to look and see if the issue is merely a symptom of a bigger problem, then do what you can to fix the underlying problem.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Deities & Demigods revisited (Game Design Attack #4)

I've been happy with the structure and most of the rules for Deities and Demigods, but there have been some issues with it. By and large, the biggest issues seem to be that the game takes too long, or takes too long to get interesting. This may be largely because the board is too big for players to really interact until the very end of the game. I've wanted to shrink the board to address that, but I wasn't sure how to do so while still maintaining enough cities and quest locations. Here are some changes I made to the prototype after a playtest at Game Design Attack #4:

* Use only 4 boards (at all player counts).
* Put 2 cities and 1 quest on each city board (2 quests and 1 city on the back).
* Rather than interacting with cities and quests from adjacent nodes, have players travel into cities or onto quest locations.
* At the suggestion that a victory point for level 1 Hephaestus might be too much, I might try changing that to 1 gold (or, 1 gold per city controlled to help incentivize controlling cities in the early and mid game.)
* I'm contemplating changing Hera's income to "1 gold + 1 gold per city controlled" to help incentivize controlling cities in the early and mid game.
* I've had combat in the game from the outset because I figured it went with the theme, and I'd hoped it wouldn't be much different than area majority such as El Grande. However, I'm not a player who really likes direct confrontation in games, and I think this is not the type of game that would really go along with that kind of interaction. So I will try removing combat altogether, or at least make it expensive and rare like I did in Escalation.
* I'm considering removing the deck of building cards, and instead allowing building tokens to count toward control of a city... it would be easy and intuitive to count control that way, just count up all of your wooden pieces in the hex. I'm not sure if I like that idea or not though, and I suppose if I didn't want buildings to count toward control, they could be punchboard tokens rather than wooden discs in the final game. It would reduce components and clutter to just cut the building deck though.
* If I cut the building deck, I'd have to adjust the scoring icons... instead of 4 each of 6 icons, I'd probably do 3 each of 4 icons. I could also consolidate the 12 best card effects I currently have between artifacts and buildings.
* I keep going back and forth on the turn order track and what happens if you gain initiative and land on another player's marker. Currently you always go on the bottom of the stack, no matter which direction you were moving your counter. I might change that to top of stack if advancing and bottom of stack when losing initiative and see how that goes. I think I was trying to be consistent, and I liked always going to the bottom of the stack vs always going to the top, but maybe that consistency isn't necessary.
* I don't know if this will be necessary, but if I decide I need a fail-safe way to hard cap the game at 6 cycles, I could try this... take all the Hera cards out of the deck, and instead have a supply of 6 Hera cards. At the end of each cycle, add a Hera to the deck. When that stack of 6 runs out, that's the last cycle (6 total). The game end may trigger before that, but it would keep the max length to 6 cycles. This would make Hera come up less often in the first 2 cycles, and more often in cycles 4-6, which might actually be good to facilitate more opportunities to earn the favor of the god cards.
* With a smaller board it's possible that 4 cycles would no longer be too few, so I could even change the above idea to 5 Hera cards instead of 6 (for a maximum of 5 cycles).

I'll probably post again when I get a chance to try all this stuff. My prototype is all updated and ready to go!