Four Get Drafty in Pimlico

Last month's Sunday playtest meetup in London got cancelled due to a clash with Fathers' Day, and this month's got rescheduled as its planned date coincided with the Men's Association Football World Cup final, but I was fortunately able to make the new date. Of course, the new date clashed with a big cycling event in the city, which caused travel chaos for some, but seven of us made it, then an eighth, and then a ninth, so all was well.

Before getting to my own game, I got to play a couple of games of a light card game, which is so close to being something I would buy in a heartbeat, and once through of a midweight Euro game, which I had tried an earlier iteration of, and is well on its way to being a great candidate for my game shelf too.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing how both of these turn out.

My game for the day was Drafty Valley, which I had tested a few days earlier as a two player game, and saw that the latest version appeared to be working OK, but seemed weak with only two players. I wanted to see how it fares with more, so was just sitting down as part of a group of three, when a fourth player arrived, making the setup perfect from my point of view.

Getting close to the end of the game.
"What's that you've got there, Grandad?" asks one of the players,
spotting that I am using an old camera rather than my phone.
So, what did I learn? Well, the objective cards are still well out of line, but this is not news -- I haven't actually changed them in the last couple of iterations. More specifically, though, there is currently a class of objective where you just need to have a particular board state (like have roads connecting certain features), and this sat poorly with the players, who all wanted to see objectives that they achieved themselves.

I got some interesting feedback on the market very quickly, and all three of my testers objected to how it worked. The idea is that there is a marker for each good on a number track, and when you buy a good, you pay the amount to the left of the marker, and then move the marker left, which usually increases the value of that good.  Selling works the same, but moving to the right, lowering the value.  The feedback I received was that this seemed unintuitive, and the price should just be the value that the marker is on, and then the marker should adjust accordingly.

This is an odd one, as the players were unanimous in this opinion, and they are clearly correct in their opinion that they found it unintuitive (a playtester's perception of something is always correct, even if the conclusion they come to is arguable), but I still disagree that their model would be better than the one that exists.  From a thematic point of view I would argue that it makes sense that a merchant would buy something at one price, and sell it at a different (higher) one, and I like this model, so I'll stick with it for a little while longer, but if feedback keeps pointing this way I will get ready to slay this particular darling.  It may well be that I just need to make the chart clearer, and describe the values on either side of the marker as the asking price and the offering price, respectively.  We'll see...

On a related matter, shipping (being able to sell a big bulk of goods at a single, often lower, price than the general market offers) was barely used and seemed to be unincentivised (ick, that's a horrible, jargony word), in part due to one player taking control of the port at the start of the game.  I need to have a think about this (and if it is an action that actually adds to the game), and am considering rolling the shipping action into the same action card as the market trading, as they are thematically related, and reducing the number of cards seems cool to me.  Perhaps a better explanation and graphical presentation may help.

There was also a general feeling that people wanted houses to belong to them, rather than just belonging to the board, as with most of the game elements. I think that this is a pity, as I like the general theme of the kingdom being developed as a whole rather than it being about individual players, but I can see where they are coming from, and I think I will have to at least experiment with this, and we talked through a couple of ideas of how this could work.

The final major point, I think, was one that tallies with feedback from a couple of earlier playtests: choosing an action card should give you a decent bonus for choosing it, along the lines of the classic Puerto Rico. So, for instance, if I choose the market trading action, I might be able to do more trades than you are permitted.

The overall theme of feedback from this session was that many aspects of the game just didn't line up with the expectations of the players.  Is this because I have made poor design decisions and need to get more sensible, or because I am trying something different and interesting, and should persist, and maybe figure out better ways to present these aspects? I'm hoping that it's not entirely the former, but even if it is, then I can learn from that.  I will need to reflect more on this but bear that question in mind as I go through the next stages of development.

In the short term, though, my main priorities are to rework the objective cards pretty much from the ground up and look at the "leader bonus" issue.  I think this will almost certainly result in other changes (for instance, I am having a bit of an urge to make a new board, and there's that house ownership thing...) but I have a focus and we'll just see how things go.


Action Valley

Previously in the chronicles of Drafty Valley: I made a game where players draft actions each round and most of those actions trigger different variants of drafting mechanics which result in players producing and selling goods and developing land in search of profit.  Testing suggested that most of the game's structure and flow had promise, but the balance was far enough off to get in the way of testing, and some aspects of the game proved overwhelmingly frustrating for some players.

The game has been on the shelf since UK Games Expo, while I thought about other things for a while, but now it's time to have another run at it.

I know the balance of the objectives in the game is terrible at the moment, but I decided to focus on something else for the moment: the core of the game, the action cards. The way the game has worked so far is that each round there is a selection of over-sized cards on display, each allowing an action, including claiming locations, producing resources, and building things. At the start of the round, each player chooses a card, and they get to take the action first, followed by everyone else. At the end of the round, action cards are replenished from a deck.

It feels a bit weird putting a pic before I've explained the context,
but these are the new action cards.
This proved problematic in a few ways, including:
  • I thought it would be interesting for players to discover the available actions as they go along, but this proved almost universally unpopular as players usually want to know what options will come up in the future as a guide for their choices.
  • Some rounds there were poor combinations of actions available, and often players ended up having little or nothing to do on a turn and not much they could have done about it.
  • The random supply of actions sometimes meant that turn order was the most important factor in the game, and sometimes irrelevant, leading to frustration.
  • Many of the available actions were useful at some stage of the game (for some players) but utterly useless at others. More frustration.
So, what I have done is to strip the small deck of action cards back to just seven of them, mostly with options on them, combining multiple former-cards into one.  I have also decided to not bother putting the full rules for each action on the cards, so they are now down to standard card size, meaning that there can be a row of all of the cards visible at once, without requiring an enormous table.

The mechanism for managing action cards is that at the start of the round, each player selects a card, using the "Small World" style mechanism where you drop a coin onto each card that you skip from one end of the row -- we'll say the left.  If you choose a card with coins on, you get to keep those coins.  Cards slide along to the left as gaps appear.  Then, when actions are resolved, the cards return to the right hand end of the row.

This way, every action is available every round, but the actions which were used last round are more expensive, and ignored actions will gradually become more valuable, until someone can't resist the cash payout. 

Which leaves me at a point where I need to playtest again. I've been doing badly at getting prototypes to the table lately, but am working on getting things going again, so it shouldn't be long before this gets in front of other people...


24 Hours of Heat

Another month, another 24 hour game design challenge. This time the requirement for the contest was the word "heat", which seemed apt given the heatwave we've been seeing recently in the UK and other parts of Europe.  I wasn't really planning to do this one (it's quite a busy time at the moment from a family point of view, with school and music related demands), but I couldn't help but thinking about phrases, puns, and cliches related to heat.  When my brain stumbled across "packing heat" I couldn't let go, and ended up thinking about gangsters going on holiday and packing their luggage, including "heat" alongside their general holiday supplies.

This is a dangerous situation and I spent the next couple of days with the idea bouncing around my head. The rules of the contest are that you can't write anything down until you start your 24 hours, which makes it difficult to put ideas on hold, and it got to the point where I just had to do something.  Luckily on Saturday I had an evening to myself, and on Sunday all I needed to do was accompany my wife and daughter to a Race For Life event, then get the daughter to her dance exam in the afternoon. It would be fine.

I think my prototypes have benefited greatly from my recent acquisition of a colour printer.

By the end of the evening I had made a set of components (the classic deck of 54 cards -- handy because it is a reasonable 6 sheets for a print & play set, and also pretty much coincides with a standard sheet of cards at a proper card manufacturer) and the basic rules written down. To be honest I had been more than a bit woolly about specific rules in my initial planning, but working on it broke the game down into two phases: one where you pack your luggage (collect/play cards) and one where some twiddling about occurs and scoring takes place. The idea was that you needed a set of holiday items in order to finish the game, but you won by having the most money.

I had already tried out other approaches in my head: top were some kind of push your luck system, or something where you could bluff about what was in your luggage and challenge each other.  Neither of these really crystalised though.

I didn't manage to get "real person" playtesting this time, but did some solo testing, with me playing multiple hands of cards at the same time, and this was effective in trying out a few options and seeing how different ways of playing with the components worked out.  In the end, my plans for the first half of the game survived with minor modifications, and the second half got changed quite significantly into a form of trick taking game using the luggage (cards) you had collected in the first half.

Achievement unlocked: my first trick taking game. Sort of.

Behold! The final card types. For now, at least. 
So, despite the hot, sticky weather we are having here, I did manage to get the first draft of another game sorted, formatted for print & play, and made available. It's always a good feeling to make that happen, even if that is all this game will ever be. Hopefully I'll get a chance to give it a proper test soon and decide if it has a future in any form.

If you are interested, my entry post for the contest is here, and includes download links for the rules and cards.