London Bog Castles

Muppet that I am, I wrote up a post about my London playtest trip last month and then forgot to post it. I only realised this today, more than a month later.  So, please note that the following was written weeks ago...


This month's playtesting trip to London coincided with St Patrick's Day, and realising this a week or two in advance nudged me into dragging Corlea, my game about building a trackway through a bog in Iron Age Ireland, back onto the workbench and seeing if I could get it into shape following some serious problems with it a few months ago.

A big element of the original concept of the Corlea game was that building the trackway created new action spaces that you could use, and players would progress along it in a "Tokaido" style (the player at the back can move as far forward as they wish).  This never worked as I wanted it to, and I decided that this was a darling that I should kill, and so I rebuilt the game with something closer to a regular "worker placement" mechanism.  And that is what I tested.

The Corlea board could definitely do with a redesign: it gets hugely cluttered!

When playtesting it is important to know what you want to get out of the exercise and can also be useful to let your players know what you are wanting from them.  In this case, I knew that the balance of the scoring elements of the game, and the usefulness of various cards and possibly action spaces, was likely to be questionable at least.  I asked my testers (who were, remember, game designers themselves) to try to ignore game balance for now and just see how the game flows and help me decide if I had something that felt like a game rather than an exercise in frustration like the previous version.  If it passes this test, I can start looking at the details.

So how did we do?  Well, I think the game passed the initial smell test.  Quite a lot went right: turns zipped along, so downtime was not long, total playtime was just short of an hour, pretty much nailing the sweet spot I was aiming for, decisions felt reasonably interesting most of the time (though got less so later on), we saw some variety in styles of play thanks to some of the skill cards and, slightly comically and unexpectedly given that I was certain that the game had horrible balance problems, the end game scores were reasonably close.

There were plenty of problems we found.  For instance the set collecting part of crafting and burying offerings just didn't hang together properly, there was no lure to get players to try collecting "King's Favour" (one-off, instant effect) cards, later in the game the positioning of workers in various tasks became rather stale, we ran out of one of the stacks of cards, and various effects felt either over or under powered.  All these things are totally solvable, and I count this playtest as a huge success: the game overall mostly worked and I now have a list of things to look at next.  Onward!

After playing a couple of other games from another designer, we reached the point where everyone who had brought a prototype had had at least one play, and the afternoon was getting fairly late, so people started to leave.  I did, however, manage to get a quick test of my two-player Castle War card game with a designer I was chatting with.

This play of Castle War was basically a casual play-through, with only a minor tweak since my last try of it, hoping to largely get another perspective on the issues identified in other recent tests.  The outcome was that the minor tweak (which was just a slight nerfing of an effect) seemed to have been positive, and the feedback I got closely aligned with feedback and observations from my last play or two.  Essentially the game could do with a little more ability to manoeuvre troops, the unit types didn't seem as distinct as maybe they should (though maybe that's not actually a problem), and occasionally you can end up with a hand of cards that is just useless in your current situation, so we want a little more flexibility there.

So, all in all another really enjoyable and productive day. Thanks due to everyone who attended and made it so good, as always.


Working up a steam

Sometimes ideas just come. I'm not sure where this was from, but it has some similarities to the rather great game, Azul, and a couple of other things.  The idea was for a simple mechanism where you take items from a location (on a ring of spaces) and then draw a couple of items from a bag and place them on adjacent locations on that ring.  Then a game could be built around collecting and using those items.

Version Zero: minimum viable prototype.

I made a quick prototype with a bag of gems in three colours that I had lying around, a quick, hand-drawn board, and some cards scribbled on the back of some old cards from a previous prototype, to provide something to spend the gems on.  This was all perfectly fine for a proof-of-concept sketch of a game.  I had a couple of plays with this, playing multiple virtual "players" myself, and it seemed to be not terrible.  Bear in mind that this was pretty much the minimum I could do to make something that was actually playable, intended to check that a core mechanic is at least plausible, and as such I think I gave myself a thumbs up on this one, so decided to try progressing the game a little.

At this point, the game was just an abstract mechanism, and experience has taught me that I cannot develop an abstract game: I need some sort of theme to guide me in future decisions.  This theme might change later, but it would be something to work with along the way.  Fortunately, another project came to my rescue: this year I have decided to draw (and share online) something every day of the year if I can. This is old school: drawing on paper, though the implement I use to make the drawing can be whatever I fancy at the time, as can the subject matter.  As I was putting together this prototype, I drew a page of random steampunk-style gizmos, and this actually looked like it could be the start of a theme.

My first sheet of steampunky things, based on pics found all over the place.

So, what I ended up with was the idea that players are apprentices in a workshop, tasked with putting the finishing touches to various gadgets before they are dispatched to their final owners. You might even be able to make use of some of these gadgets to help you in your task, but if you break it you have to fix it!  The resources are still abstract coloured gems, but I can work on that later.

With this all in mind, I made use of the artwork I had, with a cog icon as a default for cards that didn't have their own picture, and made a new prototype for some solo testing once again, this time setting up a NanDECK script, pointing at a Google Sheet, to build cards that I can quickly print and cut out.  Some of the gadget cards had special abilities and a chance that they would break when you use them (they always work, but you roll a die to see if they then break), a cost in resources to complete, and a score for completing them (based on the resources -- which are of varied rarity -- required to complete them).

Version 1: more like a game, but not a good one yet.

It turns out that a bunch of MDF discs I had lying about were handy instead of having an actual board (though it starts looking a bit like Azul) and a silicone cupcake case is perfect to sit in the middle to collect discarded resources.

So at this point, the game works mechanically, but is somewhat dull.  My idea that you can use the abilities of gadgets is fine (though the abilities I had here weren't great) but the risk of breaking them was really harsh, and disincentivised using them quite dramatically.  I really should have learnt by now that there is a tendency for players to want to avoid risk of loss, and this sort of mechanism rarely works very well when I try it.

I am now overhauling the game, removing the potential punishment for using actions, but doubling down on the idea that there are actions to use.  I'm aiming to make this a game that has a similar complexity and pace to, say, Splendor, and to be fair, the flow of play (gain resources, then use resources to acquire things that win you the game) is fairly similar. I'm not too worried about that at the moment, and there are solid differences, but I will need to be sure that having an inspiration does not result in the game being too derivative.