Monday, July 09, 2007

Playtests at Spielbany

I attended Spielbany, a meeting of game designers from the Board Game Designers Forum, last weekend and I managed to get some playtesting done. Of the games I brought, All For One, Terra Prime, Blockade Runner, and Wizard's Tower were played. I also managed to play games by other designers:
Acts of the Disciples by Jeff Warrender
Push and Shove by Tom Kiel
Prolix by Gil Hova
Love Means Nothing by Ariel Seone
Othberon by Tom Kiel

I also saw but didn't get a chance to play Wag the Wolf by Gil Hova and Lost Adventures by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk.

Since this is my game design blog, I'll only post about the games I'm working on here. If you want to know about the others, check out BGDF! The only game I have
extensive comments on is All For One...

All For One
Of course I'm always happy to play this game... I've been working on it with Scurra (David Brain) for something like 3 1/3 years - my first email correspondence with David is from March 2004. In that time, this game has gone through waves of development followed by waves of sitting on the shelf. For the last 2 years there have actually been 2 different versions, "my" Identity (ID) version, and "David's" Story version. The main difference being that David's crew added Story tracks instead of the secret identities in order to try and (a) separate the players from the characters in a more complete way, and (b) make for a more thematic, King vs Cardinal feel overall (maybe adding some story arc to the game). His 3 Story tracks had a player goal at each end, and each player got a goal card indicating which goal they wanted each track to lean toward. Points were scored depending on the position of the tracks... you would earn points for each track if it were further toward your goal than the opposite one.

When I visited London in November I finally had a chance to play the Story version, and while I like the results it tried to achieve, I did not like the way it went about trying to achieve them. After some thought and some discussion with other testers, I came up with a sort of hybrid Story Track version of the game - one which attempts to achieve the same goals (fixing some of the more common complaints about the game), while preserving the good things about the ID version that I liked and that have earned compliments from many testers. This Hybrid version was the version I brought on Saturday, and Saturday was the 2nd time this new version had ever been played. Important to note may be that we played a 5 player game, and I'm happy to report the potentially unfair distributions of goals did not appear to be a problem at all. I had originally forgotten about the handicap I intended to give the players who started at a disadvantage until someone suggested the exact thing I had in mind...

Of the 5 players, 3 had played once or twice before and 1 was brand new. I of course have played more than probably anyone else on the planet. I was very interested to see how the people who'd played before fared this game, and what they thought of the new version.

I didn't take any notes, but from what I recall the consensus was that the Story Tracks were an improvement over the secret IDs. Everyone managed to do 3 or 4 missions (which is typical) except for Jeff. I couldn't figure out what was holding Jeff up, but according to his report it appears he was trying some longer term planning. Unfortunately, this game with 5 players doesn't really allow for much long term planning. With 4 players it's ore possible, and with only 3 players it's VERY possible to plan long term plays (spanning 2, 3, or 4 turns), but with the chaos introduced by 5 players it's simply not a viable strategy to plan much more than 2 turns out. 2 turns is still very possible, because a player can get 2 turns in a row using their One For All card. That being the case, it's not impossible to really plan a 3 turn play if people don't seem to be using the character you need... beyond that, all bets are off - too much stuff happens between your turns to count on the board position more than 2 turns down the road.

Since the chaos is a feature of the 5 player game, and the game still works as a tactical game that way, it doesn't concern me too much. That said, Jeff's suggestion of a 7th character for the 5 player game is an interesting one which deserves consideration. I'm not sure how that would work in, perse, but it may be worth trying anyway. I'm not sure it would really help the situation though. Perhaps a hand size of 3 instead of 4 (so there are fewer mission cards out there) may help, but I doubt that would be a net gain either because 4 Missions sees to be the sweet spot with regard to having a play you can reasonably work toward without having way too many options.

I'm fairly happy with the game as is, and wouldn't mind sending it off to publishers this way. The only thing I'm currently considering as a change is trying to find a way to inject some long term strategy into the game. So far I've had 2 ideas to do this, one of which I didn't like when I tried it, and the other of which has sounded pretty bad to the testers I've mentioned it to...

I had tried a system (the last iteration) in which you got Blue points or Red points depending on which character did the mission (Musketeer or Agent), and then only counted one of the two depending on how the game ended. I thought it was too swingy or "all-or-nothing" for my liking, but it does offer the benefit of a long range plan. I'm not entirely sure how this would jive with the story tracks, but I think it can work - maybe I'll try that again.

The more recent idea had to do with set collection - I didn't want to change the game at all, so I was looking for some way to reward stuff players already do if they plan ahead to do it. Since at the end of the game you can see which missions you've done (they're lined up in front of you on the table), it would be easy to give a bonus for some configuration of missions. The regular scoring rewards doing any mission, and the Story Tracks reward using the same character a lot, so I wouldn't want to reward, say, 3 missions by the same character. Nothing in the game rewards using a variety of characters... so my thought was to give a bonus for using each character at least once (with "any character" missions counting as wilds). The down side there is that you really only do 3 -5 missions per game, and there are 6 characters... I suppose there could be a reward for 3 different characters, and a bigger reward for 4 different, but that sounds a little weak to me, and as Jeff mentioned there's already a lot of functionality to the mission cards.

If anyone can think of a reasonable way to add long term planning to the game, please let me know - or if you think it's really not necessary, let me know that too.

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