Another week has left us. And what a glorious week we have upon us. Just as we are gearing up for GenCon it turns out that I have a birthday this Friday! So of course this week will be a good one. I suppose I should try to get some playtesting in so that I’m not taking garbage to GenCon. But we’ll worry about that later.
Here’s a recap of my boards and barleys from the past week…
Capital Brewery Supper Club: This is an excellent beer to enjoy when you’re not worried about anything. Sit back, put your feet up, and realize this beer’s “not bad.”
O’So Big O: This was another decent beer to enjoy while relaxing. It had a little tanginess, but that didn’t hinder the enjoyment. This beer is from the wonderful town of Plover, WI.
Ben Franklin’s Honey: I again enjoyed some of my own homebrew. However, I have a big problem. I am almost out of my own beer and I don’t have a batch currently fermenting. We are approaching mission critical here. I’d better start brewing!
Here’s glimpse of a cooler I was able to rummage through at a party I attended this weekend. Some of the better beers were in a different cooler.
Horny Goat Watermelon Wheat: Rule #1: No fruit in beer unless it’s a Lambic and it’s done correctly. Rule #2: If you’re using fruit in beer, please just not watermelon. Yeah… I didn’t care for this beer and won’t be having it again.
Pabst Blue Ribbon: Out of reverence for fellow game designers that I had the privilege to meet at Protospiel-Wisconsin, I hoisted a cold PBR this weekend. And I realized that it wasn’t that bad. I’d have another, especially if it was available at GenCon!
Unfortunately I didn’t get to play as many games as I had hoped. Here’s the three that I did manage to play:
Tsuro: My friend’s $1.20 thrift store find has made the table a bunch lately. And we got it out again this past week. This is a great filler game that doesn’t take much though, has minimal downtime, and is also fun to play. unlike last week we didn’t have a three-way tie for the win.
Guillotine: This is a fun card game where players try to get the most points over the course of three days. During each day different cards are placed on the table. On a player’s turn they can play a card from their hand, and then they must take the card closest to the guillotine. The card they played hopefully allowed them to put a better card in that spot so that they didn’t have to take a bad one. It’s a pretty fun game despite some dude’s butts on some of the cards.
The Settlers of Catan: We always have fun when we play this game, even with 6 players. When we play with 6 I get to use my two different versions and the table looks pretty funny. But it’s always a fun game, even if I know I’m going to lose after the initial placement phase. Here’s a picture of our setup:
Another week under the belt. What Barley or Boards did you enjoy this past week?
One topic that seems to come up a lot is how to make board game prototypes. I’m not talking about coming up with a design. I’m talking about physically creating prototype game components. Game designers are constantly trying to make their components so that they can get right to the playtesting phase of game design.
Today I want to discuss the tools I use to create my prototypes. At this point you should already have your prototype artwork created if you’re going to be printing anything. Let’s assume it’s already been printed. Now it’s time to make it awesome!
One common component that is particularly easy to make for prototypes are chits. These are typically just printed artwork glued onto matte board. But matte board can prove to be difficult to cut.
There’s two ways that I’ll cut my chits out of the matte board.
- Straight edge and utility or X-acto knife (not ideal)
- Rotary cutter (ideal)
What we are doing here is separating the chits from one another. When creating your artwork you should line up the edges of the components so that you only need to make one cut between them.
The straight edge and knife approach is definitely NOT my approved method and I would never recommend it. However, a lot of people use that approach so I needed to mention it. One recommendation is to use a safety straightedge like the one shown here. You only have 10 fingertips so why not spend a few extra dollars and get a straightedge like this and make sure to not lose any fingertips!
I don’t like this method for a few reasons. The first is that you need a cutting mat to go underneath so you don’t scratch your table. The second is that the blade doesn’t always stay straight as you are cutting the matte board. And that can be really annoying.
My preferred method is to use a rotary cutter like this Fiskars 12″ Scrapbooking version. It is super easy to use, relatively cheap (especially compared to the $40 safety straightedge), and very reliable. And since most of us don’t have printers that print on anything other than 8.5×11 paper anyway, the 12″ Fiskars tool is perfect!
So I will print my prototype artwork on photo paper, adhere it to matte board, and then cut out the individual components using the rotary cutter. Just a heads up when using matte board though: you’ll likely have to roll the cutter back and forth a few times to cut all the way through. That’s still an easier process than trying to run a blade along the straightedge.
On the topic of matte board, I recently went to Hobby Lobby and purchase two huge packs of “matboard” for $6 each. I got a pack of 12″x12″ and a pack of 11″x14″. These are so cheap that I almost felt like I was stealing. They are just the leftovers from the framing department that were cut out from the boards used to mat pictures/paintings for customers. What a great way for Hobby Lobby to reduce their waste and provide a useful product. Here’s what I got for $12:
The other key tool of my trade is a glue stick. Some people will use standard glue, some will use spray adhesive. I prefer the glue stick to standard glue since it is simple to apply evenly. This is very helpful when trying to make sure that your components are completely glued down.
Now you know a great method for producing chits. If possible, keep them as rectangles rather than circles of hexes. But since we’re on the topic of circles and hexes let’s move on to another excellent tool…
There are times when you don’t want rectangular components. Perhaps your game is a map building game with hex tiles. Or perhaps you require special discs for your game. If that’s the case, then I strongly urge you consider purchasing a punch.
One thing to keep in mind when purchasing a punch is how thick of paper/board are you wanting to punch. Often these sorts of punches are used by scrapbookers who are only punching paper. That means they may not be able to punch through matte board. Sometimes you can only find out after you’ve bought the punch. Bummer.
Here are some recommendations, keeping in mind that I don’t know specifically how thick they can punch. OR you can just do a search for “hobby punch” and find one you’d like.
- Fiskars Squeeze Hex Punches
- Creative Memories Punches
- Older Creative Memories Hex Punches on eBay
- And don’t forget the Corner Rounder punch which can be helpful for cards that are printed on nice canvas/linen finish paper.
These can come in really handy. I use a circle punch when creating prototype coins. I have used a hex punch to create stickers for hex tiles. And here is my little tip for punching, which I mentioned in a prototyping article a long while back, but which is worth repeating.
When punching, flip the punch over so you can visually align the part that you want cut.
So now you’ve got the tools to cut out chits and punch out little bits of awesomeness! What about cards?
Many game designers come across the need for cards in their game designs. I have made cards numerous times. Early on I would buy 60lb. paper and just cut out rectangles. But there is a problem with that. The edges of the rectangles can be slightly bent from cutting, which leads to great difficulty in shuffling the cards.
The way to prevent that while also protecting the cards is to purchase card sleeves. These inexpensive beauties will be a little lifesaver by removing anguish from your prototypes. Plus, you can get awesome one’s like the one shown here with a kitten running through a field!
If you want a good go-to source for sleeves then look no further than Mayday Games. Here is a series of links to the sizes you may be looking for:
- Euro Cards (59×92 mm)
- Mini Euro Cards (45×68 mm)
- Card Game (63.5×88 mm)
- Standard USA Cards (56×87 mm)
- Magnum Ultra Fit for 7-Wonders (65×100 mm)
Those should offer some help. They definitely help with being able to shuffle your cards. The only downside is that when stacked they can be really slippery and your stack may tumble over.
Speaking of tumbling…
Sometimes it becomes necessary for a game designer to create their own set of dice. Sure, you could always just make a cheat-sheet conversion table, but that can be a huge burden for your playtesters who would constantly have to recheck the sheet. So one of the tools of the trade is to purchase blank, sticker-able dice.
Look no further than Indented Blank Dice. The best part of their site is that they have labels that you can purchase and print on rather than having to buy blank label paper and try to cut/punch out your own labels and then peel them off.
Don’t buy blank label paper. Don’t cut/punch out stickers. Don’t try to peel them.
Just buy the sticker label paper and save yourself from the frustration.
So this concludes my little article about Prototyping Tools of the Trade. Next week I will be posting a follow-up article on Sourcing Components for Prototyping. It will cover where to purchase boards, bits, and more. So stay tuned!
I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the third of 4 articles about it. This is the third article about the game from it’s creation to the present state. Here are the four articles in this series:
- 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
- 5-23-13: Early Prototying
- Today 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
- 6-6-13: Path to GenCon
Today we’re looking at the current state of the game, and how I got there. In my opinion today’s article covers the most important details of game design. Let’s call it “distilling” and “skimming.” But first let’s look at why I took a break from the game.
The Hiatus, or “This game stinks… let’s take a break!”
If you’ve read the past two articles on Trading Post then you’ve learned what I want the game to be like (week 1 – Origins), and you’ve learned how I don’t want to be (Week 2 – Early Prototyping). At its heart I want Trading Post to be a competitive game about exploration and development of a western Trading Post. I want the game to flow smoothly, create tense decisions, feel thematic, and be easy to teach/learn.
My previous version was none of those. I had spent a lot of time on this game. I thought I had something very thematic. But I realized that I had a big pile of garbage that didn’t work together. It had several things in it that felt like busywork rather than a game. And ultimately it was not any fun. That’s a huge problem. Remember that we are game designers and games are supposed to be fun!
So I decided to put Trading Post on the shelf. That must have been early in 2012. At the time it was a pretty easy decision because I really didn’t know how to move forward with the game. I could easily have abandoned the project overall.
During the hiatus I worked on a few other games. The most notable (at this point) was my card game Dam It! But I was working on another game with a level 1 friend. It used several of the same elements of Trading Post but in a more thematic and historical context. Ultimately I realized that Trading Post was a game I wanted to bring back. To resurrect.
So after having Scoville turn in to the PnP behemoth that it has I figured now would be a good time to try and bring back Trading Post from the dust in my basement.
A Fresh Start – Land Exploration
There were certain elements that I thought would be good to carry over from the first version of the game. And there were others that I knew I should ditch. I figured a good way to redesign the game would be to start with the elements I wanted and add from there. I could then completely ignore the bad things from version one.
My starting point was the land exploration portion of the game. I knew that this could be dramatically simplified. To get things more simple I decided that the game would have only four natural resources – Water, Lumber, Stone, and Gold. The previous version had more – Lumber, Grain, Animals, Fruit, Cotton, Steel/Iron, and Water. That was too many. And four would allow me to do what I want with the game.
So I set up a way to make things be as equal as possible, without forcing identical conditions on players. I devised a set of ten tiles that each player would have. Throughout the game, as they explore their territory, they would draw seven of the ten tiles. It was designed at that number so that no player would be without any of the resources. Here are the ten tiles from which each player draws when they explore:
Players will add these to their portion of land that the Trading Post has given them to explore. Each player starts with a Meadow (1 Water) and a Hill (One Water OR One Lumber).
With this design players will always have access to all of the resources. Sometimes players may end up with all four mountain tiles and thus a bunch of stone. Likewise players may end up with only one mountain tile and thus very little stone.
Here’s a look at the starting region for each player:
With the understanding that some players may have only one gold tile or stone tile while others may have four stone tiles or four gold tiles I knew that I’d have to design the game so that you can win under any of those conditions. That leads me to my next design element that has carried over from version 1… the buildings.
In the original version of the game the buildings only entered into the mix late in the game. They acted the same way as the Orders – that is, they came out four per year and you could fulfill them from the pool of face up cards. I didn’t like that.
So I decided to make buildings a more integrated part of the game by allowing them to be entered for some benefit to a player. Also, I decided that buildings should be available from the start of the game. Thematically the idea of building buildings is that you are developing the Trading Post so that it offers more to any guests that may visit. So buildings are a part of the game play from the get go.
There are 14 different buildings in the game. Each building offers players some sort of trading opportunity. Players can purchase buildings and build them on their land. Once they build a building they will earn points for building it, but will also cover up the natural resources that they could produce on that territory tile.
When a player purchases a building they will take the associated hex for that building and place it onto a section of their territory that they have already prepared for a building. Note: preparing land is a separate action.
Whenever another player enters the bank tile, the owner is to be paid two coins as a sort of “trade fee.” These buildings will be critical to success in the game. You want to own them, but you also don’t want to give up the resources of the land that they are covering. It’s a sort of Catch-22. But that’s part of the fun of a game, right?
My objective with the design of the buildings was to utilize both stone and gold equally. This would aid the differing land resource conditions that I mentioned above. As an example, there is another building where you can trade one gold for two stone. Imagine owning both that building and the bank! You’d be able to create a huge supply of both stone and gold.
Now that I had redesigned the buildings in a much simpler manner that will be more integrated into the game play it was time to give players options for scoring points. And it made me ask the very important question that I seem to neglect until the late stages of game design: How do you win the game?
Let’s Get to the Point(s)!
I struggled a lot with how I wanted scoring to be handled in Trading Post. So far we’ve only discussed earning points via buildings. In the previous version of the game players could earn points from fulfilling orders. I wanted that element to remain in the game.
But I also wanted more opportunity for scoring. And I wanted that scoring to be hidden. This mechanic is the core of the famous game Ticket to Ride. In that game players play the game and attempt to complete routes from one city to another. They are the only person who knows the route. At the end of the game the routes are revealed and players score positive or negative points based on whether or not they connected the two cities.
You Can’t Order Me Around!
So I decided to distill my original set of Orders from the first version of the game. Maybe now is a good time for me to explain what I mean by distill. Here’s a definition of the word “distill:”
to extract the essential elements of; refine;
That is exactly what I’ve been doing with these game elements. I am extracting the parts of the elements that make sense and work as a game. You could also look at it like separating the wheat from the chaff. Version 1 had a lot of chaff and very little wheat. But the wheat that was there was very good wheat. I recommend to all game designers who have projects that they’ve shelved to try and distill them. This is a great way to get back to the core elements that you originally desired while removing the garbage that you added needlessly.
So I took the concept of orders and basically “Mathified” it. What I mean by that is I basically designed the orders to be different combinations of the resources used in the game.
Version 1 had a huge list like the spreadsheet that I showed last week. These were things like hats, pies, and musketballs. I decided that with the redesign I would ignore the naming of the items and just use the mathy combination of things.
So there are orders that cost 1 wood or 1 lumber or 1 stone or 1 gold. Then there are orders that cost any combination of two of those resources. Then there are orders that add in the secondary resources (hammer/nails/bricks/trowel). And it gets more complicated from there.
The design has a scale for how many points each order should be worth based on the costs. In the example shown the gold may be worth 2 and the bricks and trowel each worth 5 to get to a total of 12 points. So players are able to earn points during the game by fulfilling orders. (I know… that seems similar to Scoville. Oh well.)
You’ve Got a Hidden Agenda!
The other scoring I mentioned is hidden scoring. There are many games that have scoring conditions that are revealed at the end of the game. So I’m not doing anything groundbreaking here. But having hidden scoring conditions that only get revealed at the end of the game is a great way for players to never feel out of a game!
So I designed a set of scoring condition cards that have a two-fold purpose:
- Give players hope.
- Give players goals.
Hope is a big deal in board games. If a player doesn’t think they can win they may as well give up. I’ve seen players who know they can’t win start to help their favorite player win the game. I do not like that in a game. If a player has hope that they are doing a great job meeting their own scoring conditions then they have hope that they could pull it out in the end. Games like this include Stone Age, Archipelago, Ticket to Ride, and Suburbia to name a few.
Goals are also important. It helps guide a player’s strategy. It gives a player something to plan for. And it can help eliminate analysis paralysis. One of the newer games that has goals that definitely guide my strategy is 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders each player has their own “Wonder” which is shown on a player mat in front of them. Each of these is different and provides some sort of bonus. The wonder that you receive can steer your strategy in the game.
I designed a deck of scoring condition cards to meet those requirements. These include having certain sets of buildings or certain combinations of fulfilled orders. So players can have hope throughout the game and never feel completely out of it. They may not be totally thematic, but I can give up a little theme for a better game. If players want to think of these scoring conditions more thematically then they can think of them as private commissions from the Trading Post.
Here are two examples of scoring conditions. The card on the left would award points to the player only if they managed to own two blue buildings and a green building. The card on the right would award different numbers of points based on how many orange orders they fulfilled.
But How Do You Play?
Ironically this is probably the one question to which I don’t know the answer. I am debating about having the game play several different ways. Options include:
- Role Selection a la Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, Carson City.
- Turn based game play with players choosing one thing to do per turn.
- Turn based with an action point allowance system.
- Rounds where players each do action A, then action B, and so on.
I truly have not decided which is the best approach for this game. I may end up testing all four options and seeing which works best. Here are the things I am trying to design for in the game:
- Minimal downtime
- No runaway winner
- Tense decisions
- Ramping up of awesomeness
- Accessibility – Easy to learn, easy to teach, easy to play
So I’m going to choose the game play option that best fits those game design goals. I am initially leaning toward the role selection option but making it less about a role and more about providing a specific set of actions that a player can do. I’m not sure that makes sense.
The bottom line is that I have several game play concepts within the game but I don’t have an overall picture of the game play. That’s what I’ll be discussing more in depth in next week’s article about my path to GenCon with Trading Post.
So next week I’ll cover the game play options for the game. I’ll also cover how to get this game ready to potentially pitch it to publishers at GenCon. Stay tuned! As usual, your comments are welcome. I’d love to hear what people think about this game design.
Last week I wrote about prototyping a board game and I shared my prototyping techniques for Scoville. This week I am sharing my concept process. How do I come up with a game design? Do I choose a theme and then add mechanics? Or do I choose a mechanic and then slap on a theme? Do I purposefully try to integrate an appropriate theme for the mechanics? These are the sorts of questions I’m answering today in a “self-interview” format.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration?
A: Everywhere awesomeness can be found. I can be easily inspired by just about anything. Make a game about boll weevils? Sure! Make a game about nuclear radioactive decay? Why Not! My main rule of thumb for game design, whether it’s the concept phase, prototyping, or potentially pitching a game is this:
Make sure it’s fun and relate-able!
If what you are designing is something that is fun, then the theme can be just about anything. I usually get inspired by the things that I
waste spend my time on. If I’m enjoying the NCAA basketball tournament I’ll probably start thinking of making a card game where you represent a team in a region of the bracket and via set collection and hand management you have to play the right cards to get your team through the Final Four and eventually to win the championship. If I’m working out in the gym I might be inspired to design a game where you are a person who is trying to lose the most weight. You’d have to compete against the other players to burn the most calories or increase your bench press weight the most. The bottom line, though, is that it must be something fun. Players may love a set collection/hand management game, but if the theme is something boring that no one can relate to, then maybe you should come up with something else.
Q: Regarding a game designer’s Chicken vs. Egg Debate: Mechanic or Theme first?
My inspiration is typically theme based, so I usually start there. I’m not a huge fan of abstract games, either. So that probably guides me toward choosing a theme first.
When you choose a theme first it allows you to sort of steer your game in a direction that fits cohesively. Once you have a theme you can pick and choose the mechanics that you think will work best. Imagine you have chosen the NCAA tournament theme. It would be important to understand how the tournament works. You have 64 teams playing games over several weekends. Each game eliminates one team. Eventually you get to a Final Four. So once you understand how the tournament works you can then start to add mechanics. One way to do this would be to have players each represent one region of the tournament. Your objective would be to get your best team into the Final Four. Other players can play the spoiler role and try to cause upsets in your region. To do all this you could use a blind card mechanic with a drafting round before players apply cards. All players could draft a card and then cards could be played onto each game. The overall idea here is that when choosing a theme first you can then go and apply mechanics that you think fit the theme AND make the game fun.
On the other hand when you choose a mechanic first you are almost automatically starting with a more abstract game. A theme could be slapped on that probably fits the mechanic. Or a different theme. Or another different theme. The reason I typically don’t start with a mechanic is because the theme part of a game is typically what makes a game fun and relate-able. That’s just how I roll!
Q: What about boring themes? People seem to like them too!
Valid point, self. So there are a lot of games that have very boring (my opinion) themes that people still really like. Farming, for example. How can a game about farming be fun? The game Agricola is the third highest rated game on BoardGameGeek.com. So clearly the theme isn’t the whole picture in whether a game is fun or not. In fact, many Euro style games involve “trading” or “resource management,” which can be very boring topics. The key is this:
When the theme is boring, make sure the mechanics are innovative and unique (and fun!) (Or have awesome artwork!)
Sometimes people buy games because of the theme. Sometimes they buy games because of the mechanics. As long as the game is fun it can have a super dry and boring theme and people will potentially enjoy it.
Q: You keep mentioning “Fun.” How do you make sure a game is fun?
When I first got into designing games I searched for articles about making games fun. I found some interesting things that I wanted to list here. Some of them are less about fun and more about making a game “good.” But it’s my philosophy that if a game isn’t good, it won’t be fun. So making a game “good” is a prerequisite for making a game “fun.” Here are my rules of thumb for the conceptual phase of the game design process:
- Interaction is Critical! (Otherwise I’d be designing solo video games!)
- Avoid Downtime.
- Provide many options on each turn – you don’t want players to only have one option on their turn. If they can only do one thing then the cease playing a game and become robots.
- Provide multiple paths toward victory. Even if there is only one victory condition, make sure that there are numerous ways to get there.
- Avoid a runaway winner.
Let’s quickly run through why each of these is important for making a game good and fun:
Interaction: If there is nothing you can do to affect the other players, then you’re playing a solo game against other solo gamers. Not fun. If there is no interaction on a verbal level then it doesn’t matter that you’re sitting around a table with friends. You may as well make your game into an app that people can play when they’re sitting on the toilet. Provide a way for players to interact in the game.
Downtime: No one likes sitting around for a long time while other players are taking their turns. Try to design your game so that people are constantly paying attention. Make sure they’re invested in what the other players are doing. It’s no fun to be sitting around waiting.
Options: Without options a game of strategy or tactics or even luck becomes a simple matter of doing whatever it is that the game is forcing you to do on your turn. That’s no fun at all! Designers: give your players options! Don’t turn us into robots.
Paths to Victory: It’s important for players to be able to play your game in different ways. This can be as simple as having destination tickets like in Ticket to Ride. Or it can be complicated like choosing the best way to fill in your estate in The Castles of Burgundy. Just make sure that you’re giving the players different ways to reach a winning condition.
Runaway Winner: I just as easily could have said to avoid player elimination. With a game where a player can get so far ahead that no one can catch up it is effectively player elimination anyway. A good and fun game design will include a way for players to catch up to a leader. This can be done several ways, including hindering the leader or benefiting a last place player. Think of the NCAA thing again. Which games are more enjoyable to watch, blowouts? or close games where a team was down big and they came back and hit a buzzer beater at the end?
Of course there are other things that can determine whether or not a game is any fun. Those above are just the main five things that I always keep in mind when designing a game. Another one that I did not mention because it is difficult to get right in a game is having an ever increasing amount of tension in a game. That is one of the things that Agricola does really well. This can be done by having limited resources or a first-come-first-serve option. Agricola has both!
Q: You’ve got a theme, now what?
You’ve chosen an interesting theme that could be fun and is relate-able. Where do you go next? I like to do a little research about whichever topic I’m thinking about designing into a game. When doing the research I try to figure out things about the topic that would work well for game mechanics.
In the Boll Weevil example I just learned that boll weevils, though not native to the United States, migrated here in the 19th century and by the 1920s had devastated much of the cotton industry. So perhaps while the boll weevil theme itself may not be very fun or interesting, as a designer I could go several different routes. I could make the game be a cooperative game about controlling the infestation. I could make it so that players represent individual boll weevils trying to infest the largest amount of territory. I could even make the game about farmers trying to grow the best cotton while other players can launch infestations of boll weevils on their opponents. So I could definitely produce a game about Boll Weevils. Question is, would anyone care?
The point is that once you choose a theme, do a little research and figure out what you really want the objective of the game to be.
Q: How do you add mechanics?
Now that you’ve gotten to the point of understanding what your objective is in your game it’s time to start turning it into a real game. The key is understanding the theme. You don’t want to add things to your game that don’t really fit the theme. I recently ran across this with the game Archipelago. There are mechanics in that game that just don’t seem to fit the theme of exploring an archipelago and dealing with indigenous persons. One example is that if the rebels are advancing you can get them to stop by selling fruit. But you aren’t selling fruit to the rebels. You simply have to sell fruit. It just didn’t make much sense to me.
So when I think about adding mechanics to the theme I figure out how the theme really works. It’s like the boll weevil example above. Since boll weevils spread and infest I would probably add a mechanic where a swarm of boll weevils is taking over precious territory.
I also like to keep in mind the 5 points I made above about making a game good. If a mechanic adds too much downtime, for example, I might not go with that mechanic. Or if a mechanic has no player interaction I’d probably leave it out. It is important as a game designer to be cognizant of how the mechanics in your game not only allow for players to reach the game’s objectives, but also to make the game good and fun!
Game designers face an interesting challenge. The whole idea of creating a game is almost a game in and of itself. Designers strive to make games that are fun, induce emotions from the players, create an atmosphere of engagement between players, and be innovative all at the same time. Finding a theme, applying mechanics, and balancing the game are all things that go into making a great game. If there’s a game out there that you really enjoy, find the designer on Twitter and thank them! A lot went into that game!
I had the privilege of attending my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. Protospiel is a convention for game designers to bring prototypes and get feedback from other designers. So I took my game Scoville along and got some awesome feedback! I think that I’ll focus this recap on my game rather than provide opinions of the games I played that are unpublished. That would not be fair to the designers even if I really enjoyed their games since all the games I played are still in progress. So rather than posting a drawn out chronological recap of the weekend I will just post the drawn out highlights for the play tests of Scoville.
I was fortunate to have Scoville played five times and was pleased to play 8 other games by other designers. Protospiel is an awesome thing for a designer to attend!
Here’s a little background about my Protospiel expectations and goals…
Protospiel: First Contact
Coming to Protospiel I had two goals: 1) validate whether or not Scoville is any good and 2) connect with people who know what they’re talking about. A secondary goal was to leave a copy of the game with Grant Rodiek for inclusion in the Prototype Penpal Program. That was something I could always do later on, but I thought it could be cool to send a copy off with him.
I also had some expectations about the feedback I might receive. I knew that I wanted to adjust the auction phase of the game. So I to see the same feedback about it that I had seen from my prior play tests. I was also a little uncertain about the quality of my prototype (that thought was quickly vanquished!). Thanks to everyone for the kind words about the quality of my prototype. I’ll post an article sometime about how I make prototypes.
So if I received validation and made some connections then I would have considered this weekend a success. Let’s see how it went.
Scoville Play Test #1
Getting to the convention at 8:15am on Saturday allowed me to get my game set up right away since few people were there. I got four people to give it a go and they seemed to really enjoy it. I won’t explain the game much here since I’ll be writing a post all about the game itself. Here are the suggestions that I received after the game:
- Beware of color blindness (Cool apps: Color Blind Vision (Android: FREE) and Colorblind Vision (iOS: $2.99)).
- Stage II orders seem to provide too many points.
- If everyone bids zero in the auction, flop the player order.
- Put endgame trigger scenario onto the guidesheet.
- Tiebreaker should go to the player with the most coins.
- The game was described as a “Euro with luck but no dice.”
- There should be no randomly chosen player order at the start of the game.
- During fulfillment there should be the option to pay for becoming the first player.
That’s a lot of great feedback. The game uses 10 differently colored cubes so I have been aware of the color blindness issue. There are several solutions for this. The biggest takeaway from play test #1 was that I received the auction feedback I was expecting. My plan would be to test a new auction mechanic on Sunday.
One player, who happened to be the winner by a lot, wanted to try a strategy that I am aware of but have not yet seen attempted. Since peppers can be sold for coins based on how many of that color are planted in the fields there is a strategy that you can plant a pepper of a certain color in each round and harvest that same color each round without doing anything else. I have done the math in my head and I do not believe that this would be a winning strategy (at least I hoped not because that would make the game broken). More on this below.
Scoville Play Test #2
After working on Protospiel goal #2 of making connections and meeting some awesome people, they were willing to give Scoville a try. During this second play test there was more bidding and jostling of player order. I think that was the reason that the auction was not mentioned in the post-game discussion. This play also resulted in much closer scores than the first play. Here are the suggestions I received:
- Peppers should be worth something at the end (that are currently worth nothing in the endgame: Use Them or Lose Them!)
- The artwork on the fields should somehow better illustrate where the player pawns can be placed.
- The game was described as a “medium to heavy Euro.”
So I received quite a bit less feedback from play #2. But the fact that I still didn’t receive any feedback about how anything seemed broken meant that perhaps Protospiel goal #1 (validation) was starting to become apparent.
Scoville Play Test #3
Later Saturday night a prominent figure in the board game reviewing business was able to play Scoville. So with three other players I got play test #3 going. In terms of rounds this was the shortest game I have seen. The game lasted 6 rounds. The players again seemed to enjoy the game and nothing seemed broken to them. They did mention the auction as the weak point of the game, so I received good feedback about that that I could implement on Sunday. Here’s the suggestions:
- Possible Trademark issue with the names of peppers used on the recipe tiles.
- Turn order needs adjusting. Option 1: Flop the order. Option 2: Purchase your spot.
- Perhaps just get rid of the reverse order for the harvest action.
- Brown peppers seem too valuable.
I want to point out that the brown peppers are somewhat of an enigma in the game. They don’t breed with anything except the best peppers. They take up space on the map. But they are used quite a bit in the recipes. I had not received feedback that browns were too valuable before this. The normal feedback on the brown peppers is that they seem pointless. So this was interesting feedback from a fresh perspective.
I was also pleased, in a bittersweet way, to hear the same feedback on the auction mechanic. I now knew that I could incorporate a revised auction mechanic on Sunday and expect good things.
I was intrigued by the suggestion to remove the reverse player order for the harvest. My first thought was “absolutely not.” What that would lead to is either huge bids during the auction or rounds of the game where one player can make a huge jump in points. I’ll have to examine this further.
Scoville Play Test #4
Sunday morning I was able to play Scoville for the first time during the weekend. I had not played in the previous play tests. And this time it was just a two player game. I have tried to design the game such that it scales well from 2 to 6 players. There are no AI players necessary and the game feels nearly exactly the same with 6 players as it does with 2.
Since it was now Sunday I was going to implement the new auction mechanic: Bid for Player Order. Now during the auction phase players would be bidding for turn order. Whoever bids the most gets to choose their spot in the turn order. The next highest bidder gets to choose the next spot, and so on. This way, if a player wanted to become the first harvester they could bid high and then choose the last spot, which would allow them to harvest first.
The new auction in the two player game seemed to work, but I suppose that this new auction mechanic would work even better with more players. What the new auction mechanic provided was a way to earn the first harvester spot. That is critical to strategy in the game.
Here are the suggestions I received:
- Are points balanced on the Order tiles?
- Change the artwork on the Cross-Breeding table for the cross-breeds that result in two peppers.
The points on the Order tiles may be slightly unbalanced, but not to the point of brokenness. These can be easily revised, which I may do depending on analysis of the scoring for the first 25 play tests. The artwork suggestion is an excellent one that I will definitely change.
Scoville Play Test #5
The final play of Scoville included the big winner from play #1. He wanted to test the coin building theory and see if it could potentially provide a winning strategy. I welcomed him to try it but made sure that the other players were initially unaware of his proposed gameplay. It was a great final play and I was happy to see that the new auction mechanic really worked well with four players. Here are the suggestions:
- Don’t call it “harvesting, call it “breed-vesting.”
- Check out the game Santiago since there is a similar “fields” mechanic (uh oh… worried about this!)
- The different parts of the game were described by one player as Resources (Auction), Tactics (Orders), and Strategy (Recipes).
The first thing to discuss was the auction. Of note is that this game had the highest average bidding per round of all 5 play tests during the weekend. I think this is due to players now having two things to bid for (first player spot or last player spot) rather than for just moving up in player order. The thing of note was the compliment someone gave to the auction saying that the auction was a good mechanic for the game. This brought the game full circle over the weekend. Previously the auction was described as the weak point of the game. Now it was “good.” I’ll take that!
The other thing that was validated from this final play test was that the game was not broken in that attempting to get coins by planting and harvesting the same color did not result in a winning strategy. The player was going full steam ahead from the get-go with that strategy and came in last place (though could have finished in third place). I was pleased that the game wasn’t close to being won by that strategy. Overall it was a great play test.
Overall Scoville Analysis
Perhaps the best part of the analysis is that people really seemed to enjoy the game. While my goal was to validate whether or not it was any good, I came away from Protospiel very humbled by all the kind words people had for the game. Let’s dig in a little bit and check out the scoring breakdown:
Some further analysis revealed that the number of coins bid during the game varied quite a bit. In terms of coins bid per round the numbers were 2, 6.14, 7.66, 1.38 (2-player), and 7.85 per game. The highest average was the 4-player game with the new auction, though this wasn’t unexpected.
Overall it was apparent that people had fun when playing the game. That’s the most important thing to me as a designer. There are some things that I would like to continue to develop leading up to Gen Con that I mentioned to the players. But I want to avoid the situation where I am needlessly adding complexity. That would steal from the simple elegance of the mechanics currently in the game.
Thank you to all 16 players who play tested my game. I really appreciate the feedback. It was an awesome weekend! And special thanks to Grant Rodiek for humbly accepting a copy for the Prototype Penpal Program. I know that I can expect some awesome, honest feedback!