Exploration of Multi-Function Cards -- Oh, and Some Settling

The game known as Explore and Settle (or Gamey McGameface, as I facetiously touted it online) has had its third visit to a London playtest meetup, and in a very different form to previous times.

After a load of thrashing ideas around and some solo playtesting (sometimes it's worth just playing against myself to see how things pan out), the game got a lot of components removed and a very different play dynamic added, and I was looking forward to seeing how it worked with real people.

So now I have got rid of gold, resource tokens and the like, and rolled loads of functions into a deck of cards.  Essentially, the terrain cards still have a terrain tile as their main part, and they still have a built-in indicator of resource production, but now they also each have a pair of actions that the card can be used for, including builds and settlement movements.  Oh, and the cards can also be discarded (or passed to other players) as payment, so the cards act as currency as well.  Each turn you draw some cards, and cities allow you to draw additional cards.

The big questions were, at this point, are the choices afforded by these new, multi-function cards interesting, does the game flow OK in this form, and do the options just make everything grind to a halt?
Our game at its end, with the blue player having constructed his third monument.
Note the hole in the middle, where there was a void where cards could not be played.
We had a three-player game, with me giving the caveat that I was wanting to look at overall game play and flow, and noting that the balance of costs, victory points, and so on, was likely to be horribly wrong at this stage.  That latter prediction did, indeed, turn out to be correct, but what else did we learn?...

It turns out, not surprisingly, that there is a fairly heavy cognitive load when figuring out what you can do on each turn.  Figuring out if you have enough cards to, say, build a monument can take some working through, and this can make for some periods of staring at cards and doing mental gymnastics to solve the puzzle.  None of it is actually too difficult, but it does take some concentration, and this is all something that could attract some players but put others off completely.  I will need to decide if this is something I am happy with in the design, or if I can simplify and smooth the play out.

My testers also had some difficulty just getting their heads around how the game works, with the combination of terrain, production, actions, and cards-as-currency, and there was a comment that some aspects (particularly the way cards are used to pay for certain things) are somewhat unituitive.  This is a potential problem, but given the way that the latter half of the play through went (pretty smoothly overall), I think it might just be that I need to improve the presentation of the game with better iconography, player aids, and rules explanations.

While cities and monuments were build all over the place, only one production location was built, which surprised me a little, but it was felt that there wasn't really any incentive to undertake these builds, partly as it was too easy for other players to move settlements in and poach access to these facilities.

On balance, though, this was a very positive test.  I think the overall shape of the game is now one I like, and with some more (or a lot more) attention to costs and benefits of things, I think I can make progress here.

This is definitely the heaviest game I have got to this stage of development, although it is probably still just a middleweight in the grand scheme of things.  I did get one interesting suggestion, though, which was to strip the game back down to a very basic level (need to decide what that is first!) and see if the gameplay is still okay.  While I am still wanting to work on a meatier game than others I have developed over the last year or so, this is probably a very worthwhile exercise to learn more about what I am doing here, and it may well help me find the elements that need focussing on.

Apart from testing this game, I of course played games designed by other people.  This time we had a short and chaotic game of queue manipulation, a game of storytelling with a stack of words you have to use (in order) in your story, and a game about building a telegraph network in mid-nineteenth century America.  As always some very interesting (and varied) stuff with great potential.


Has This Idea Been Done Before?

Every week on Board Game Geek there are threads started in the game design forums which basically say, "I have an idea for a game and want to know if it has been done before."  Essentially, they don't want to waste their time developing a game that is too similar to something that is already out there, and want to add something new and original to the market.

Totally understandable.

But pointless.
Shia has the idea.  Sorry, I don't know who made this image,
but Google tells me it is labelled for reuse.
Weird how hard it is to source things sometimes.

These threads usually result in a few similar seeming games (there really is nothing new), to which the original poster responds by saying one or more of:
  • "I've never heard of them" -- indicating a lack of familiarity with the hobby as a whole; this isn't necessarily a problem as everyone starts somewhere, and you don't need to know everything about games to be able to create a good game (thankfully).
  • "No, those games are different to my idea because..." -- indicating that the poster didn't do a good job of explaining his idea; and this is probably largely because it is just an idea and not developed into anything tangible. The ensuing discussion is sometimes interesting.
  • "Oh well, back to the drawing board" -- suggesting that this person will never finish a game, as he is too worried about doing something unique to actually get anywhere.
Game design is a skill that can be learned and developed, like any creative skill.  I am still new and inexperienced, but over the last couple of years of projects of varying sizes, including many failures and blind alleys, I have got better at it.  Getting better at game design includes being able to find different angles to take and options to explore.  I am not saying that I am a very innovative designer, but I am finding that just getting on with designs I often find at least something in each design that makes it stand out from otherwise similar games.

Which brings me to the advice that most of these threads end up with: it doesn't matter if your idea is not the most original in the world, or even if it has been done a hundred times already.  If you are asking the question, then clearly the idea is one which interests you, so just run with it and see where it takes you.  If you end up with a decent game, chances are it will be sufficiently different to other games on the market to justify its place in the world, and if it sucks and you abandon it, you should have learnt a heap along the way.  Plus, by the time you are moving on you will probably be getting more ideas to try out.

Just do it!  Somebody should make that into their company motto.


Boogying at Expo Again

So, three spells of playtesting Boogie Knights at UK Games Expo and getting 19 strangers to play across five games has resulted in quite a lot of feedback and notes that I took at the time.
One of the 5-player games at Expo, running at Saturday lunchtime. Fun to watch.

Firstly, statistics.  I wasn't rigorously checking the play times, but we do seem to be fairly steady at around 20 minutes (plus or minus about 4), regardless of how many players we have, which is pleasing.  I recorded the number of reshuffles, and the end game scores for each game, noting the scores in player order (so first player first):

# playersScoresReshuffles
310, 8, 51
510, 8, 8, 4, 52
34, 10, 81
46, 6, 7, 101
58, 9, 10, 7, 33

In most cases, there seems to be an issue where one or two players lag behind the leaders by quite a large margin.  This is a little concerning to me, though there isn't yet enough data to see if this is really a thing.  I discussed this with some of the players and, in that discussion at least, it was felt that this is probably not a big deal and might actually be an issue due to inexperienced players making basic mistakes (like not being assertive enough).  I think I need to check this, and can do so by getting some testers to play a few times and see how the score distributions change as they gain experience.

My general observations in all the games were that the game generates a fair bit of laughter and the quick change and dirty tricks rules were very popular and used extensively, and often effectively.  I think I may have got them about right now.

From the feedback, both written and spoken, most people seem to like the game for what it is, but there were a few players who felt that the game needs some extra options or different actions to increase the variety of play. One player suggested that there could be a third area for competition aside from combat and disco.

I'm a bit cagey about adding more in, as I think the game seems to be working well at present, but I think perhaps I can think of some cards to add for an advanced game in case people want a bit more.  It would be nice to have some sort of expansion module that could be included, as it might spread the appeal, but perhaps crowbarring that sort of thing in might be working against what the game wants to be.  I'm sure it can be done though and I will get to that eventually.

I did actually make a very minor change to the rules based on feedback on Saturday (dirty tricks can now swap items with the armoury row as well as with other players), and this change appears to be for the better, so thanks to the guy who suggested that.

Other feedback included a suggestion that a soundtrack is needed for the game; a comment that the non-medieval elements of the game don't seem to fit in as well (this might be due to my dodgy art!); having too many challenges turn up too early can be a problem; and final artwork will be key to the game's appeal.

All in all, I owe a huge thank you to everyone who played over the weekend.  I'm starting to get some confidence that I'm now moving in the right direction, and that I probably just need to get the game played as much as possible and try to shake out any long-term trends to see what needs working on next.  Part of this is investigating what happens with experienced players, as discussed earlier.  And I think it might be time for me to start pushing a bit harder to get some blind tests done...


Return to the Expo

So UK Games Expo, in its new and shiny home of the enormous NEC Hall 1 (as well as the Hilton that it has been in for the last few years!) has been and gone, and I attended for all three days, a fair bit of which was spent in the Playtest Zone (organised by the awesome Rob Harris of Playtest UK), with time divided between running games of Boogie Knights, playing other folks' prototypes, and helping to draw innocent victims in to the tables.

Proof that I actually had the attention of some players, despite wearing an obnoxious shirt.
Thanks to Namgyal Chatral for the pic.

I had two sessions of testing Boogie Knights, and during each session I managed to get two plays in, and it was pleasingly easy to fill the tables, though that was largely down to the efforts of the volunteers roping in passers-by.  In total that made for 17 people who hadn't played the game before, most of whom gave helpful feedback (mostly very positive, but some interesting points raised), and I even got an extra play that I joined in back at the hotel on Saturday evening with a couple I met, so this has extended the number of people who have played the game quite significantly.

I'll write another post to discuss the feedback I got in a couple of days or so.

Aside from that I got to play some really interesting prototypes, including one that has a The Resistance sort of vibe but is based on the prisoner's dilemma and ultimately has you choosing your own side, and a clever cooperative game about moving animals around fields.  Even volunteering at the zone for a while and wearing the Red Shirt (which makes us far more likely to suffer an unpleasant fate than the yellow-shirted Expo volunteers) was really rewarding, and I'll try to spend more time helping out next year.

Both at the Playtest Zone and elsewhere I enjoyed meeting people (several who I had previously met online) and making new friends and contacts.  Highlights included getting high-5's from numerous people; learning to play Guilds of London from the designer; Tony Boydell, and then listening to Gil Hova deconstructing it afterwards; a brief chat with Paul and Pip from Shut Up and Sit Down; cramming into the packed open gaming halls on Friday night and then having a really quiet little gaming session at the hotel bar on Saturday; discovering that the little coffee stall in Hall 1 near the Playtest Zone made damn fine coffee; and just getting to talk game design with heaps of interesting and interesting people.