Intense Invaded Iteration

One of the big challenges in game design is getting playtesting done, particularly early on in the process.  You need to get people willing to sit down with an incomplete and unpolished game, and you need to be able to get feedback from them, analyse that feedback, and use it to improve the game.  Actually, some of the best feedback is gained simply by watching the players (Are they bored? Are they misunderstanding parts of the rules?...), but discussions can also yield really useful input, though it is not always useful in the way that the testers think.  For instance, testing a fairly early version of Boogie Knights resulted heaps of suggestions for the "one little thing" that would make the game better; in the end, most of the issues prompting those suggestions were addressed by removing a whole load of cruft from the game instead.

Anyway, after a number of weeks of struggling to get much testing done, I've just had a really intense few days of work on Invaded and now I need to focus on pulling together all the elements that have been thrown up into the air.
The end of the latest playtest with three players.

It all started last Thursday.  I have a friend at work who is also a neophyte game designer and we have recently started to use occasional lunch breaks to test each other's designs.  The available time is limited, but I think we're both finding it useful.  This particular Thursday we got to play a few turns of Invaded to shake out a few cobwebs, and based on that I made a couple of minor tweaks to the rules before...

The same evening I had a chance to head off to meet up with another, far more experienced, game designer who had agreed to meet me in a pub in a town about half way between our homes.  This game revealed that the resource production was a bit too free and confirmed that my simple market mechanism was just taking up space without adding anything of worth to the game.  We also figured out that one of the big problems with colonial movement would be helped by giving a faster flow of reinforcements to the landing site, plus that the gaining of objectives might be better with a set of face-up cards available for anyone to claim.

All this was good stuff and left me with a couple of days to make some minor changes to components and a few tweaks to the rules before it was in to London for the monthly Sunday Playtest UK meetup at the Jugged Hare.

I joined in to make up a four player game with some other designers who managed to inflict some significant damage on the state of the game, most notably managing to totally rip the heart out of the objectives system, which basically meant the victory conditions would need fundamental reworking.  A major part of this was the observation that the objective cards just didn't seem to fit the thematic structure of simply trying to not get consigned to history in the face on an invasion.  Oh, and the resource economy still had huge problems.

At this point my morale was beginning to suffer as I was starting to wonder if I would ever get the game into a decent form, but the (very welcome but sometimes hard to take) criticisms were counterbalanced by an almost universal support for the game's concept.  Basically, everyone seems to like the idea, so all I need to do is make a game that lives up to the promise.  Easy, right?  Nope.

However, something that has come from a few playtesters is that some people like the idea that you start the game in a pretty strong position and then have to manage your decline so you survive better than anyone else.  This seems to run counter to a philosophy that I would usually want to follow that it is nicer and more fun to manage a building process than demolition.  And yes there are many counter-examples, but it's a decent rule of thumb.  Maybe if I just run with the idea of "get smacked down more slowly than your rivals", that might put some people off but would be a distinctive feature of the game.  The theme suggests that this is what is going on, so why am I fighting it?

I had arranged for a couple of friends to visit for playtesting the next day, so I did a bit of editing files on my return from London, and then after work on Monday I was frantically printing, cutting and sleeving cards for the next test.

And, of course, the next test was full of more problems.  I still hadn't got the resource system right: I was using a push-your-luck mechanism which was fun for many people but annoying for others and was a bit incongruous.  Players ended up with too many units and not enough to do after a few rounds, and the colonial forces were really vulnerable to a concerted attack.

So, the game still sucked and I had got yet another playtest booked for the next day.  The plan was to do several tests to help me get the game into a decent shape for a public playest at UK games expo at the beginning of June.  At this stage, though, I was wondering what I was doing to myself.

One more revision, fitting around work and sleep as best I could.  This time I totally changed the resource gathering system, reduced the limit of the number of villages and warbands that could be built, and split colonial moves and attacks into separate decks so that the regiments would move every time all the players have taken an action, but only attack after all player actions are completed.


Well, it is still a long way from perfect, but the Tuesday test was the first time I didn't end up with my head proverbially in my hands.  It actually felt like a game this time.  One with holes, too much slack time, and plenty of inconsistencies, but at last I think I have the foundation on which I can build.

The next time I am hoping to playtest is likely to be Sunday, so I have a few days to get things together and see what I can do about some of the problems from Tuesday, but at last I think I am on the way.  Until the wheels fall off again...

I'd like to take a moment here to thank all the brave people who have helped me so much over the last few days.  Phil T, Dave M, Fabio, Bez, Dean, Alice, Phil W, Barry, Fran, and Lee, ladies and gentlemen, I salute you all!

Now, back to the grindstone...

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