Friday, August 15, 2008

Noblemen - 2nd (and 3rd) playtest

After chatting with the designer about the comments I made, I gave Noblemen another try with some rules changes. Here's what I did differently, and how I think it went...

Aquire Land action: One thing Dwight had said he didn't like, and something I too didn't like, was that once 1 player played an Acquire Land action, each other player had to do so as well, or get no land. Therefore there was no "opportunity cost" associated with that action, you would have all the same options as before taking it - the other players would not have taken any actions. Furthermore, it's obviously better to be first than later in the turn order to Acquire Land, so the obvious first play every game is to take that action. It's not necessarily bad to have an obvious first play - a "Settler-Quarry" as I like to call it - but in this case it didn't feel right. Most of the game was all about different races and the opportunity cost of taking an action (meaning you will miss out on other good actions).

To fix this, one thought was to make it one of the "all play" actions - when anyone chooses the action, everyone gets to take land in turn. This means that the player to take the action gets the benefit of choosing first, but all the other players get to take land as well without having to spend their action on it. Dwight had mentioned that spending an action was supposed to be a big cost, so a player might be less inclined to take this action automatically. However, another thing we had talked about was getting rid of all of the "all play" actions. Dwight didn't like the similarity to Puerto Rico, and I agreed with him that it would probably be better to structure the game so that it's not like a Role Selection game where everyone participates in each action, further emphasizing the opportunity costs.

I had made a couple of suggestions as to alternate ways to handle the distribution of land. The main thing I thought would be cool is if when you get land, you only get land of 1 type. This would start you down a strategic path, and differentiate you from other players (because they'd take a different type of land). One method was to set up exactly 2 of each land type on the board, and when taking the Acquire Land action, you take all tiles of 1 type, then "juice" all the stacks by adding a tile to each. So I might take a stack of 2 Woods, then the next player might take a stack of 3 Farms, leaving stacks of 4 Clearings, 4 Ponds, 2 Woods, or 1 Farm for the next player that takes the action. Another option was to draw say 15 random tiles from the bag, and sort them by type, and when taking the action you get all tiles of one type OR 3 at random from the bag. I had assumed there would basically be between 1 and 4 tiles in any given stack. We used this rule to try it out, and unfortunately the distribution was way off - stacks came out with distributions like 6-5-2-1, which isn't so good. I didn't like that method.

In a later playtest I tried the "juicing" method, and that worked really, really well.

I liked the way the original Place Land action let you only place 3 tiles, and it takes 4 to make a 2x2 "feature". In our first game I thought money was unnecessarily tight, and I had the idea that maybe when playing land you should get a reward right away. So we tried awarding $1 for each Farm played, and 1 tile draw for each Woods played. This worked well, and in later games worked very well with the "juicing" Acquire action rule. Of course you still get $2, draw 2 tiles, or take the Crown when completing a Plantation, Forest, or Garden.

The Donate Land action was originally an "all play" action, and I didn't like the way it worked at all. A player not at all concentrating on Land could keep pace with a player who was heavily invested in a Land strategy, and that seemed really bad. In line with removing the All Play actions, I tried this action being simply "donate land and get 1vp per land donated" - but I thought it needed to be limited, so I specified "donate land of one type and get 1vp for each." I also removed the limit of 2x/round. This was ok, but it really meant you wouldn't want to Donate until the end of the game, you'd just build up all the land you could, and at the end use a Donate action (or 2) to turn them all into points. I think there needs to be some kind of pressure to do the action, and maybe a reason you might do it in the first scoring rounds. In later tests I added back in the 2x/round rule, and put a limit on the number of land you could donate - we removed the "of one type" restriction, but limited the number you could donate to the level of your prestige. That sounded interesting to me because if you spend time and effort increasing your Prestige, then you'll probably not have as much land to donate, and if you build up a lot of land, you probably will have lower Prestige - limiting your donation potential...

The Bribe action was similarly modified - we played that you could take a Bribe action whenever you wanted and exchange $1 for 1vp. That rate seemed fine to me, but I made the mistake of forgetting to put a limit on how much you could donate. Therefore it was a very good deal to tax a lot whenever possible and at the very end donate for 30 points or something. In later games we tried it with the same limit as Donating land - no more than your current Prestige, and that was much better. Also, I think it was better with the limited number of total Bribe actions available (2 per round, like Donate) which we reverted to in our last playtest.

As for buildings, the Church remained unchanged... cost escalated with each one built, and building the last one ended the round. I had forgotten that when drawing a Scandal card you're supposed to be able to look at the top few and choose one, but in retrospect that seemed unnecessary, and we liked it fine with simply drawing 1 card. Castles cost the same as well, but we attached a Men-At-Arms action to them. Instead of being able to choose a M@A action on your turn, you simply get one whenever you build a Castle. I liked that change very much. I didn't try any changes with the Follies at all. The comment that Follies are a really bad deal was exacerbated by the change I tried with the Bribe action (see above). I did notice that in the end game, when Castles are only worth 3-5 because there's only 1 scoring phase left, the Follies are a better deal - but not by much. You don't have to surround them, and they're worth 8/7/6/5 for $10 in 1 action, Castles are worth 3-5 per action, and must be surrounded. In the latest game we tried Follies being worth 12 points, and that seemed like a much better idea. The decreasing value was cute, but in the end I don't think it's all that necessary. I like the prerequisites for buying them as they are.

The Tax action has remained unchanged throughout the games we've played, however I did try it without the 2x/round (total) limit. I realized that removing all those limits was bad and in the last game I put them back in. It is worth noting thought that we tried a variant to the original rules: as you play land you get money. This is like an additional Tax action, and I liked how it worked. It got a little more money into the game.

For the first couple of games we played the Masquerade Ball as it was originally written in the rules. In the last test however we tried something different which I like a whole lot better. Instead of the Ball being an action, why not have it be triggered... once in the middle of the round, and again at the end of the round. I had discussed this with Dwight in the chatroom, and he seemed to like the idea. To me it makes a lot more sense thematically, as well as mechanically.

In the second to last game we used a set number of rounds, 7, with a Ball after round 4 and after round 7. It felt really cool having a hard limit to the number of actions you get! It means you can't just play land all day long, or else you'll run out of time to do real stuff. It's this aspect that makes me question the free stuff for playing land idea - but that feels so nice. I'm not sure which would be better.

In the last game I took that a step farther. I thought it would be neat to have a somewhat indeterminate round end - so you know you'll get about 8-10 turns for example, but you never know for sure. I also liked how the players had a little bit of say in when the round ends. What I did was to say that there are a certain number of rounds (I guessed 10, with a Ball in the middle and at the end), and at the end of your turn, if you have the Crown marker, then you get your 1vp and then you advance the round marker. I put that at the end of the turn instead of the beginning because that way when the Crown changes hands it effectively pushes the round marker forward. If at the beginning, then taking the Crown would prolong the round, and I thought it would be cooler the other way. *I* liked it, but my friend felt cheated when he thought he had another round and then the Crown changed hands and he missed out on his last turn. He preferred a definite number of turns which you could plan for. I'm still leaning for the indeterminate rounds.

The only other thing I tried out in the last game after Tyler's suggestion was that the Noble Titles which you win at the Masquerade Ball could have been more interesting. I added an ability to each, a simple one - a $1 discount on all buildings for the Viscount, $2 discount for the Earl, $3 discount for the Marques, and a $3 discount plus 1VP when building for the Duke. The purpose is to make the Titles more interesting, and especially to give you more incentive to go for them in the mid-round Ball, since they won't be scoring right then. I liked this a lot. The abilities could stand to be more interesting, but this seemed fine - possibly too good. Maybe better discounts would be $0/$1/$2/$2+1vp for Viscount/Earl/Marques/Duke. Either that or maybe buildings should cost more, which might be good with the freebie cash when playing Farms anyway.

Oh, a final note - since I like the Crown used as a Turn Marker (when to advance the turn), I suggest you not be able to discard it for Prestige at the Ball. Someone has to have the Crown at all times. Instead I think it should be worth 1 Prestige.

So that's it - I will be sending the prototype back to Xaq tomorrow, so I don't know if I'll ever play the game again - but I hope to hear if he plays it with any of these suggestions and how it goes. I had fun playing the game!

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