Thursday, September 09, 2010

Lessons learned - comment and response

I got an interesting comment on my last post about Terra Prime, and evidently my response is too long to add as a comment so I've got another post now...

First the comment:
Doug Orleans says: The Colonize sequence is a big one-- it's pretty drastic to have to throw out an awarded cube because you don't have space, and space is always at a premium.

There are many other slightly-too-fiddly things about this game; some could probably be cleared up with rules clarifications, some could be streamlined with rule changes. I've taught this to groups of new players a handful of times, and the response is never more than lukewarm. I don't think there's anything people hate about it (although one person did complain about the colony sequence thing a lot), but it's a lot of little things that add up, perhaps even just subconsciously, to make a "meh".

Here are some things that players seem to stumble over:

* The movement rules, e.g. the difference between Move and Explore. They're not complicated, but either they could be smoother or I need to find a smoother way to explain them.

* Remembering to refill your empty colonies at the beginning of your turn. Often all your colonies will already be full, or maybe all but one, so it's not a big enough operation to stick in your mind.

* Having to pay to use someone else's colony - it's not expensive enough to really change your decision, it's easy to forget, and it's a bit of a pain to pause and hand over the VP chip. (Or does it come from the bank? I don't even remember, too lazy to check...)

* The mechanism for selling cubes to the demand tiles is not very intuitive - would make more sense if they were all-or-nothing. There's also the issue that selling the last cube is much better than selling the first cube, because you get the tile (with its VP), and this seems more just arbitrary rather than something you can really plan for.

* Calculating the colony value - it always takes a little while for everyone to agree on the right calculation after someone puts down a colony marker. Someone usually forgets to count asteroids, or miscounts the distance from home base, or just adds wrong.

* The special-power modules - often only one or two players will even bother getting any of these. It's kind of just too much trouble to read through them, let alone plan ahead to buy a particular one.
This might be an experience issue-- they might be less undervalued once people get more familiar with how they play out in practice.

* The fact that $10 = 1VP at the end makes me feel like it'd be simpler to just have money *be* VP. Many games have that strategic question of when do you switch from earning money to earning VPs, but since money is just VPs that are also spendable, this isn't as interesting a decision.

I hope this feedback helps-- I feel like it's a decent game that could become a good-to-great game with more development.

And now my response:
Doug, thanks for your response. It is very helpful insight into how people view the game. It's also very disheartening, but for an entirely different reason than just that people have been "meh" about it...

If any of the following sounds harsh then I apologize, I really do appreciate those who have bought, played, and especially enjoyed Terra Prime, but as for some of the concerns I've read about, I just don't "get it."

Difference between Move and Explore:
In this game there are 2 possibilities: either the sector you're moving into has already been explored or it hasn't. 2 cases, clearly different, and impossible to confuse. The one that's non-trivial can only be done once per turn. I don't see how this is (a) possibly confusing at all, in any way, and (b) not dissimilar to any other game ever made with an exploration aspect. So yes, there's a difference between Moving and exploring, but that's due to the fact that some tiles are face down, not due to any kid of rules complexity.

Refilling colonies: This is easily forgotten, but it's also easily determined if any given colony should have a cube on it. I wrestled with this a little bit, but the only way to make it so players don't forget is to not put the cubes on the board and just make them always available. I didn't like that because it took away one of the only other interactions in the game (sniping resources), and it also meant too easy access to multiple resources from a planet.

I have not considered this to be a problem.

Paying to use someone's colony: You do not pay to use someone's colony. Rather they get 1 LP from the bank when you use their colony. Rather than slow down play, we just announce that we're using their colony "Point for blue!" and it's up to the blue player to take their point chip from the supply. This is not unlike Caylus, where a player gets a victory point when another player places a worker on their building, and I don't see it causing any more confusion or consternation here than it did there. This is not something I've seen or heard as a problem before.

Mechanism for Selling: I tried to make that as intuitive as possible. You have some assortment of cubes - whatever you happened to pick up. There exist spots on the demand tiles to put cubes. When you deliver, you simply put the cubes on the spots. I don't see how that could be simpler. If you had to deliver a particular combination of cubes (which is what I assume you mean by 'all-or-nothing') then the game might not work, as you can't carry all the cubes for some of the tiles at the outset, and depending on who colonizes which planets, you might not ever be able to make any money at all.

I suppose there could be NO demand tiles, and you could just deliver all of your resources all the time, but I wanted various demand fluctuations to drive player incentives of what to deliver an when. I originally had a crazy demand mechanism where the payout for delivering a cube changed as cubes of that kind were delivered - kinda like Power Grid's resource market, but it simply didn't work right. The demand tiles do a good job of approximating that - occasionally the demand for Blue goes away until a tile is completed, or demand for Green goes way up as it's the last cube needed to finish a tile for the bonus points.

To be fair, this is not a complaint I'd heard before, so maybe this is more specific to your group.

Selling the last cube being better than selling the first cube: That's a player preference thing. It is intended to give players something to plan for and go for if they want. You can absolutely plan for it, and if you don't want to then that's fine too. You always get paid for the cubes you deliver, and if you don't time it right then someone else gets the bonus points. That's one of the few really interactive parts of the game, and I don't think that's something I'd considered people being confused or unhappy about. Again, maybe this is specific to your group.

Colony Scoring: I forgot to mention it in my blog post, but that's another thing that could have been more elegant. Originally, scoring was based on the number of planets in the sector, so you were rewarded for clumping planets together. I switched to points for the type of planet, and instead of 0 for Asteroids I actually added points for asteroids because I felt like if you braved the asteroids to get there, you should be rewarded more. I also wanted to reward distance from Terra Prime. In retrospect, I probably could have left Asteroids out of the equation altogether and just scored for type of planet plus distance (I think those 2 are both important). I played around with alternate scoring for colonies, but anything simpler was simply not lucrative enough to compete with other scoring actions.

"Special-power modules: I assume you mean Technology Upgrades... There are 7 of them. They do not have a lot of text on them. I'm surprised players are so overwhelmed that they ignore them. Well, not terribly surprised, I'm finding more and more that people are overwhelmed by things I wouldn't think they'd be overwhelmed by.

I'd say it's absolutely an experience thing. I suppose there are people who play Puerto Rico without reading all the buildings (there are 16 violet ones, not including the Big buildings) and just produce and trade corn all game the first time the play.

I don't know what to tell you here - the Tech upgrades are there to help you advance your strategy. If a player can't be bothered to read them that's fine. They may miss out on something, and I would hope they'd read through the Techs after playing and realize "hey, this would have helped me out that game!"

Money = VP: I don't understand your comment here. Yes, money is VPs that are spendable. I don't understand what you mean by "it'd be simpler to have money *be* VP." It is. Do you mean that you should just get money when you colonize and other times you'd get VP as well? I don't like people getting rich from setting up a colony.

As for switching from making money to making VPs - that actually IS in there... when do you stop spending money on Modules and start saving it as VPs? I don't know if "this game doesn't have some mechanism that some other games have, and in the other games that mechanism is interesting" is really a valid criticism of a game. "I wish Puerto Rico had worker placement, because worker placement is interesting in Agricola" - just doesn't make a lot of sense as a criticism.

And amusingly, Puerto Rico's Role Selection is the same thing as worker placement, so like Terra Prime has an non-obvious version of switching from money to VP income, PR has a non-obvious version of worker placement! :)

So you see, with 1 exception your groups concerns or complaints aren't the kinds of things I feel I wish I'd done differently, and if that's why people aren't excited about Terra Prime, then that's what I'm finding so disappointing.


Isamoor said...

I'm sure he means: "Why do you have a money resource and a vp resource? Especially when they're equivalent at the end?"

I believe I made the same exact comment months ago when I played the game the first time.

Above all else, I think the reason you hit a lil' "meh" on BGG and the internet in general is because there isn't a whole lot of fuss over exploration & pickup/delivery games.

I mean really, other than Lost Valley/Gold Land/Merchants of Venus, there just isn't a whole bunch people rave about. I think it's because those games work best as an "experience" game. Or hell, as Ameritrash if you want to call it that. You went down that route at a high level, but then added a bunch of fiddly things (stray asteroids vs asteroids; vp vs money; move vs explore; what do I do when I colonize)

Still, I expect there are plenty of happy players of Terra Prime out there. I just don't think any of them would be the vocal majority on BGG.

For what it's worth, Eminent Domain does sound more with the "vibe" of BGG if you want some external reinforcement of success :)

Jeff said...

This isn't directed at TP specifically, but it may be a situation that illustrates why it's hard for a designer to develop his own game. The designer is fundamentally on the designer's side; the game is his work of art and his primary inclination is to defend it (*). The developer is on the player's side, and is more willing/able to make changes that improve the player's experience because he doesn't have any allegiance to elements of the game that the designer may have agonized to create; ie, he lacks the emotional investment in the design that might obscure his objectivity. I think it's hard for a designer to make that switch, to become objective and indifferent to his creation.

(*) This is one of the reasons that I wish designers would refrain from participating in "review" threads of their games at BGG. While they may convince themselves that they are just trying to "clarify misunderstandings" or explain the rationale behind design decisions, inevitably the defensiveness that should go along with having worked hard on something comes through. But I don't think that's necessary; a designer could start a thread describing his creative process for the game, but he should leave the players to react to the game in whatever way they choose.

Seth Jaffee said...

Jeff, I think you're completely right. That's part of why I've tried not to say anything on BGG about some of my frustration, and why now that I finally decided to vent about it I did so in my own personal blog.

It's an excellent point, when developing your own game, you really have to detach yourself and make any change that might be necessary - even if it means cutting something that was your original inspiration for the game or something you like very much. It's very difficult to do that. Hopefully I'll do better at it next time.