Run to the Hills!

I've had another period of fairly intensive testing of Invaded.  This little wave kicked off with a trip to the monthly Sunday afternoon Playtest UK meetup in London on a baking hot day. 

As always this was a great get-together, and I played three really interesting games, all very different, created by other players (a dice allocation thingy, a timed co-op, and an abstract tessellation game), but also had a 3-player play of Invaded.  

Now, this test went a similar way to the second game at UK Games Expo: one player attacked the colonial power a bit too early and was smacked down for it, only this time the retaliation was not quite as overwhelming, so the player in question was left dangling in the wind, feeling helpless, while the rest of the game completed around him.

The end of a 3-player game where red got themselves into a world of pain.
This all led to a very interesting discussion about what the game should be: should it be punishing and realistic, or should it be more easygoing and forgiving of mistakes?  To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where on that line it should fall, but I'm getting more of a feeling about it.  I think it should probably be pretty punishing, but hopefully have players able to see the likely outcomes of their actions, even on their first play, and that latter part is somewhere the game is currently falling down.  It also shouldn't be a war game, though violence should be an option that could be a plausible route to victory.

Another thing that came out of this was a thought that, perhaps, under certain circumstances, players should be able to escape from attacks or have options other than trading in favour cards (gained from supplying the colonials with their resource demands), which is currently the only defense.  I labelled this approach the "Run to the hills" strategy in my head, then went home to sleep on it.

Sleep is an essential ingredient in game design.

What this feedback, thinking and sleeping resulted in was a few cards that I labelled "finale cards" (I hate the name, but I'll think of something better later), which effectively provide special bonuses, either in victory points or in capabilities, which can be claimed and used in specific circumstances, and each player may only claim one of these cards during a game.  One of these, for instance, allows you to abandon your villages and be more mobile for the rest of the game, while another protects you from colonial attack as long as you keep them sweet.

Over the following few days I had a couple of two-player games and then went to another Playtest UK meetup, this time in Oxford, where we had a three-player game.  Distilling the key points from player feedback and my observations, I think the key things are:

  • The "finale" cards look like they could well be the making of the game.
  • BUT they absolutely are not right at the moment, neither in their form, how they are gained, or how I handle the opportunities for players to collect them.
  • For a first game, there really needs to be a "standard" start, a bit like used in Catan, as new players rarely have a clue about where to set up.
  • Villages are a bit boring: they need something else to do.  In fact there probably need to be one or two more things to do, though these could easily link to whatever the finale cards evolve into.
  • Remembering to flip colonial movement cards can be a problem with some play groups. 
I'm churning over ideas at the moment about how to address these.  I'm looking at a fairly big change now which mostly has a go at the last of those bullets: flip a colonial move card on every player's turn.  This would require a lot of rethinking, but I think I know how to do this, and along with some reworking of the finale cards it could yield interesting results.  I'll be working on this over the next few days, and then see where this takes us...


Invaded in Birmingham

I said I would go into the results of my playtesting at UK Games Expo, so here we go.  I had two 90 minute slots for playtesting, and as Invaded tends to run for approximately an hour at the moment, one slot is just about perfect for playing once, when you figure in rules explanations, discussions and feedback.
Blurry, blurry, blurry, but I used the good pic in the last post.
You aren't here for the quality photography are you?
My first game was on Friday afternoon when the Playtest Zone was having a slightly slow recruitment period.  I had two people volunteering to play, Amy and Kevin, and I decided to join in to make it a three.  This isn't really ideal, as my taking part means that I can't observe other players as well and may influence play more than I would like, but at this stage I am still building up a feel for the game, and I wanted to get more plays at three or four players if I could.

Overall the game went pretty smoothly, but the start of the game felt a little slow and aimless, partly because of the lack of initial demands, and partly because of the colonial power being slow in its initial advance.  Still!  The end of the game felt a little abrupt and there was a feeling that the colonial power could be more aggressive.  This latter point keeps coming up, and I keep tweaking, but I never seem to get it right.  I think I have probably been to gentle with the tweaks.  I remember some experienced designer (I have a feeling it was either Matt Leacock or Rob Daviau) talking about how when you are adjusting values in games you should go large on the changes, either halving or doubling rather than just tweaking the numbers.  At least to start with.  I clearly haven't internalised this.

I didn't want to change too much before the next test, but after a little thinking I figured that I could make a couple of small changes to the colonial attitude chart to hopefully accelerate the start.  The game at this point involved one colonial move after each player move until the colonial power got very aggressive later in the game, so I thought that possibly I could just up this to two cards at a time at the beginning, so the first few moves would involve the regiments expanding quickly, and then settle down to a more steady pace.  Alongside this I brought the first drawing of an attack card to an earlier stage, meaning that, particularly given the increased pace of movement, there was a chance of an attack at the end of the first round of play.
Can you spot the changes I made?

The Sunday test was astonishing.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a group of four players, Connor, Helen, Heather, and Derek, queueing to play before I was even set up, and they sat attentively through my inexpert rules explanation.  As an aside, at this stage of a game's development I find explanations difficult as the game is in a state of flux and I haven't yet got a handle on the best way to explain it.  Later on, when the game is relatively stable and I am teaching the game multiple times between revisions, the explanation can get a lot smoother.  Hopefully we'll get there with Invaded sometime soonish.

Anyway, the game started and over the first few turns I found myself needing to intervene or answer questions less and less.  One of the players wasn't quite clicking on some of the rules, but the others were able to put her straight without my help.  The game seemed to be flowing nicely, there was a little table talk, and the players all seemed well engaged.

Then something cool happened.

One of the players figured that they liked the idea of the victory points available from attacking he colonial power.  I had to clarify the attack system a bit, but the attack worked fine, knocking out a couple of colonial units and earning a couple of points of enmity.  Then the counterattacks started, and at the end of the round the attacking player, who didn't have many of the favour cards which are used as defences, got knocked back to just possessing a single village, and the following turn got wiped off the board.  He was logically eliminated one round (about 10 minutes of play) before being actually eliminated, triggering the end game condition I wasn't expecting to see for some time.

This whole turn of events was treated as a good bit of fun by the players, but revealed a part of the game that hasn't really shown up before.  We have now seen that the enmity system can result in devastating attacks from the colonial power, meaning that a player must think hard before attacking them and be ready for the potential counterattack.  I need to think about this and whether I need to protect players is some way from making a boneheaded move like attacking when they are not ready, but at the moment I am inclined to leave things more or less as they are and hopefully just make it clear in rules explanations just how dangerous attacks are.  On the other hand, it would be cool to make it so that the potential gain is enough to make players willing to risk it, so perhaps the victory point payoff for enmity tokens could go up.

More generally, I think the colonial behaviour is moving in the right direction, but is not there yet.  I am planning to make use of the different location terrains (the map cards are currently different colours, but this is purely decorative so far) as an input for deciding what moves the regiments make, which will make things rather less predictable than they are now.

Whoa!  An idea has just come to mind.  If I make a load more movement cards than are necessary and use a subset of them for any given play, it means that there will be a heap of uncertainty about what the colonial power will do at the start, but players should be able to learn the colonials' preferences and be able to predict its movements to some degree.  That has to be worth trying...

Anyway, thanks to all the testers from last weekend: you were all great and have given me a load to think about.  Now can I improve things some more...?


Completely Expo'ed

Wow, that was a heck of a weekend, with playtesting, wearing a red t-shirt, meeting heaps of people, negotiating rain and Take That fans, quite a lot of caffeine, and not as much actual playing of games as you might expect for a visit to UK Games Expo.

TL;DR: A couple of Invaded playtests, useful feedback, played some other stuff too, met and talked with a lot of people, had a great time.

So, I arrived on Friday morning, having been fortunate to meet friends en route at Oxford station, and had three hours available to explore the hall before my first playtesting slot in the afternoon.  The Playtest Zone was relatively quiet on Friday, but doing steady business, and I ended up joining in a game of Invaded to make a three-player test with a couple of innocent victims.  Normally at an event like this I would sit out and watch, but joining in was quite useful this time.  After this I donned the red shirt uniform of the Zone volunteers and helped pull in additional players for other designers.
A few rounds into the Sunday test of Invaded and it's all gone a bit pair shaped for green.

The close of the trade hall was followed by a trip to a seminar room where I was volunteering to help at the designer-publisher speed dating event.  This was a small and intense event with twelve game designers setting up one of their games on a table and then being visited by representatives of twelve publishers in a series of five-minute pitch meetings.  This was absolutely exhausting to watch, and I'm not sure how well I would do in those circumstances, so I'm really impressed with how all the designers did.  It's also interesting to note that, due to the screening process, which involved the publishers who planned to attend, that all of the designers had at least four of the companies interested in their games, so while nobody was interested in everything, there was already a feeling that nobody's time would be wasted.  (As an aside, I ended up having an interesting chat about these events with Seth Jaffee, who just turned up to see what was going on, and ended up signing my newly-acquired Eminent Domain expansion.)

Friday evening was rounded off by another designer-publisher event, this time an informal networking opportunity.  To be honest, I didn't make the most out of this, though a number of other designers took advantage of the chance to show some of their games to a few publishers, so hopefully someone got a break there.  I did, however, get a chance to play a prototype of a great game about badass princesses defending their kingdom from their evil uncle, which I really want to be able to buy some time soon.  After that it was a trudge through rain and a sea of Take That fans to get to my hotel for the night.

On Saturday I spent the morning working at the Playtest Zone, which started off being pretty hard work to pull in potential testers, but after barely half an hour people were queueing up to join test games, so the challenge was actually to find somewhere for them to play.  This is a fantastic problem to have, and it is lovely to see that so many people are interested in prototypes.  In fact, talking to a few people it is clear that for some of them coming to play works-in-progress is a major part of the Expo experience.

My afternoon was free, so I wandered about talking to people, playing a couple of demo games, and joining in a rather nice prototype about Jazz music in the Playtest Zone.  I was knackered after all this, so returned to the hotel reasonably early, where I stumbled across a lovely group of people who let me play a game of Giants with them for a while.

This seems to be developing into a pattern for me: Saturday evening is the time I just end up having a relaxed gaming session with strangers away from the main convention sites.  Long may this continue -- it is times like this which remind me of some of the reasons I love board games so much.

Finally we get to Sunday, when I started off the day by  with another 90 minute slot for testing Invaded in the Playtest zone.  I got in early and was just starting to set up when a couple of people came around and asked if they and the other couple of members of their family could play.  This was amazing and the upshot was that by the time the official start of my time had come, we were already well into the rules explanation and could get started really promptly.  I'll go into what I learned from the Invaded playtests in a later post.

For most of the rest of the day I was hanging out with S and Miss B, who had come up for the last day, though Miss B spent a good chunk of the time in the kids' roleplaying games corner, which is a highlight of her year.

So, that's what I did with my weekend.  I'm still processing some of what went on, but it was great to build up a little morale and direction.