Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Eminent Domain Print-and-Playtest feedback

I can't believe it's been a full month since my last post!

A lot has happened in that month, including having received my first royalty check for Terra Prime! Awesome! And Mike was funny when he gave it to me - suggesting I frame it... and not cash it ;)

It felt good to see my name on the box, even better on the store shelf and to see people posting strategy articles online. I kinda wish more people were playing and loving the game though. I'll have to write up a nice strategy article to get more people interested in the game. It's been rough with the production errors, I think that turned a lot of folks off from the outset.

I have been playing Eminent Domain, and I have finally settled on game end conditions (I think!):
For 2 and 3 player: VP pool or 1 pile exhaustion.
For 4 players: VP pool or 2 pile exhaustion.

The piles will be slightly larger for 2 and 3 player, because not as many cards go out for player decks. This seems to make for consistently decent game lengths as far as I can tell.

I posted on BGG and BGDF about an Eminent Domain Print-and-Play opportunity, and I got several takers. I have heard back from a few of them already. I like how the game works, so this is mainly a good blind test of the rules, which I have to admit I did a piss-poor job of writing out!

When I wrote the rules down, I tried to be as succinct as possible. The rules themselves are very simple, there are 3 parts to your turn:
1. Action: Play a card from your hand and do what it says after the "Action:" on the card.

2. Role: Choose one of the 6 Role in the game, take a Role card from that role's pile of cards. You may add to it any cards from your hand that have the icon of that Role on them and do what it says after the "Role:" on the Role card.

2b. Follow: each opponent may Follow the Role by playing cards from their hand that have icons of that Role on them and do what it says after the "Follow:" on the Role card OR, instead of Following they can "Dissent" (draw 1 card into their hand).

3. Cleanup: Discard any cards you want to discard, then reset your hand to 5 cards.

That's it, that's really all the rules to the game. The rest of the specifics involve following the directions on the card. Sure there are some other bits like setting up the game, and when the game ends, but the meat of the game is right there.

I hope I don't offend anybody with this, but I was very surprised at how much confusion there seemed to be regarding just those rules alone. When teaching the game in person I had players trying to boost Actions with cards from their hand, Follow other player's Actions (not Roles), play an Action off the Role card piles, or play a card from their had as a Role. I also had people trying to draw cards from the Role piles when dissenting rather than drawing a card from their deck into their hand. It seemed I had overestimated people's ability to, well, follow directions really (or remember the directions I guess), as well as their familiarity with a term such as "draw a card."

I've learned that I make a lot of assumptions. To me, "draw a card" means take the top card of your deck and put it in your hand." I've got an implicit assumption about the word "draw." In Dominion for example, you don't DRAW Kingdom cards, you GAIN them... DRAWING is taking cards from your DECK into your hand. It's the same thing in Eminent Domain, and yet more than 1 person attempted to take a card from the Role piles when instructed to "draw a card."

Getting a little deeper into the rules, there is a limited pool of VP tokens, each worth 1 point at the end of the game. The rules originally said nothing specifically about when to take them or when not to take them. Certain card actions (or Role effects) instruct players to take VP tokens from the supply, and that's technically all the information you need. The rules shouldn't have to list every single instance in which you DON'T take VPs from the pool, that would take pages upon pages! I've always followed the school of thought that the rules should tell you what you can do, not what you cannot do - if the rules don't say you can do something, then it's automatic that you cannot do it.

Moving on... in addition to the VP tokens, other things in the game are worth points. In particular, once you flip a Planet card face up, you will score points for it. This is indicated by a VP icon on the planet. Nowhere in the rules does it say that you should collect any VP tokens from the limited supply when flipping over a planet - you just count those victory points at the end of the game.

Again, I hope I don't offend anybody, but imagine my surprise when SEVERAL DIFFERENT play testers all made the same mistake of collecting VP tokens from the supply when flipping over planets! This mistake would have an awful effect on the game, and I can see how playing that way could totally ruin the experience. With that in mind, maybe it's worth stating explicitly in the rules that you do not collect VP tokens when flipping a planet... but how was I to know people would do something that they weren't instructed by the rules to do? My confusion was exacerbated by the fact that there are several established games in this genre (Race for the Galaxy, Puerto Rico) with exactly this same mechanism, and yet the mistake was still made, not by 1 group but by several!

Again, I was making assumptions. I assumed that people would read the rules literally and follow them correctly, and I assumed also that people would understand that mechanism since it occurs in other similar games. It turns out that perhaps I should change my philosophy, and in the case where a game-breaking mistake is possible perhaps I should explicitly state things in the rules, even if they technically shouldn't need to be there.

The good news is that even with some of the play errors made based on either the fact that I didn't write the rules down very well, or the fact that some rules were misunderstood or misplayed, I'm still hearing that some of the test groups are enjoying the game. I hope that this exercise will make me a better rules writer in the future!


Rick Holzgrafe said...

Minimalism isn't a good approach when talking to human beings. It helps to say the same thing several times, and in different ways. Examples are also highly useful: "See, you do it this way."

And yes, sometimes you need to explicitly state what players can't do. In general, try to anticipate common errors, and be explicit about them. Of course, the kind of blind rules-testing you're doing now is the best way to find out what the common errors will be!

I've been doing this for years with my software. It's amazing the misunderstandings that can happen, and since users always think it's easier to email the author than to look in the (complete, illustrated, indexed, searchable!) built-in Help, I have had strong incentive to make my software manuals as clear and accessible as possible.

Isamoor said...

It sounds more like you just need some examples. Most games follow the two example logic:

1st example covers the base case.
2nd example covers the most complicated case.

Hopefully after I get done with this exam this week I'll get back into some design mode. Gotta try some ED and work more on Equilibrium.

nolan said...

I think I would have understood the use of the VP tokens, but been confused by the dissent rule (although I would have eventually figured it out). Why?

I play a lot of Race for the Galaxy. The VP tokens is something that I'm familiar with. (And people make the same mistake with RftG, as evidenced by questions in the BGG forums.)

I haven't played a lot of Dominion. My question for dissent would have been "Draw from where?" I'm guessing that I would have figured it out because it's clearly broken to gain a card in that instance. At that point, I would probably remember that Dominion uses similar language.

Remember that many games (such as RftG) use a shared deck. If players are not accustomed to having their own deck, they may not know where to take a card from.

Seth Jaffee said...

@nolan: I see what you mean about RftG. I hadn't seen posts about people taking VPs from the supply in that game when Settling a world or playing a development, or if I did it must have been so long ago that I forgot all about it. I figured that since RftG works the same way it wouldn't be an issue.

Regarding Dissent and drawing a card... in Eminent Domain there is no common draw deck (like there is in RftG). There are stacks of cards, but I guess I associate the word "Draw" with drawing from a face down deck, and "take a card from a stack" really doesn't even come close to that. But in that regard I may have assumed too much. In any case, each player has a deck in front of them, I guess I assumed the first instinct and only logical meaning of "draw a card" would be "draw a card from the face down draw deck in front of you," not "pick up a card from somewhere else that is not called a deck and is not in front of you." but I see now how that assumption could be a bad one. I should look at the rules for Dominion and see how they say it.