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Coarse vs. Fine: Editing your Game

When Michaelangelo started carving David he didn’t grab his tiniest chisel and smallest hammer. He grabbed his big chisel and big hammer (I assume). Why? Because he needed to coarse cut the stone away to roughly the right size. Then once the bulk of the stone was removed he could use his fine tools to chip away slowly.

This Coarse Vs. Fine concept is the core of this quick article on game design.

When designing a game it is often easy to think of a lot of awesome things that could be in the game. I know there are people who put in everything but the kitchen sink into their game designs and then remove things as we go. This coarse/fine idea fits well with that design concept. There are others who start with a simple mechanic or a theme and then add things only when needed. This article doesn’t address that situation. I’ll cover that design realm another time. But for those of you who start big and remove the unnecessary components, keep reading!

The Stone

You must choose wisely… Not really.

When you start a game design you’ll choose a mechanic or a theme or both. This is like going to the quarry and picking out the stone you’ll start with for the sculpture. When picking the stone you want to make sure it is big enough, has the right grain structure, possesses the desirable color and so on. Similarly, when choosing the mechanic and theme you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a lot of different components that fit with the theme and mechanic.

So go ahead and make your choice. Once you’ve got your stone it’s…

Hammer Time!

This is where you design the game, prototype it, and play it.

Once you’ve played it there will likely be parts of the game that don’t work, are broken, don’t make any sense, or aren’t fun. Take the hammer to them!

Like making a sculpture, once the stone is in your workshop you typically sketch a little on the block and then start taking the hammer to it. It is time to take away big chunks of the stone that you know you won’t need. Don’t be afraid to remove those big chunks of stone.

Back in the game design world, this is where you remove those chunks of the game that were broken, didn’t make sense, or weren’t fun. Don’t be afraid to get rid of them.

If you have things that don’t make sense thematically… Hammer Time!

If you have mechanics that don’t work right… Hammer Time!

If mechanic X isn’t any fun… Hammer Time!

If you aren’t happy with something… Hammer Time!

The point here is to narrow the focus of the design. Take away the things that obviously don’t belong. If something is iffy, save it for later. Playtest it over and over until you feel you’ve removed all the big chunks. Then put away the hammer and grab the chisel.

Chisel Time!

I know that “Chisel Time” doesn’t sound as awesome as “Hammer Time” but it’s much more important in terms of game design and development. It’s easy to break away the big chunks of a game. But using your fine tools to craft something with elegance and class is very difficult.

Chisel Time is really where you move from game design into the game development realm.

Once you have finished with the hammer you are left with a block of mechanics, components, and concepts that closely resemble a final product. The nitty gritty down and dirty work happens in the Chisel Time phase. This is where you playtest, tweak, playtest, tweak, playtest, tweak, and on and on. You’re no longer removing large chunks from the design. Rather you are polishing the remaining elements to make them as streamlined and perfect as they can be.

So What?

The whole idea here is to give a perspective about how game design works. Relating game design to sculpting stone allows me to have the right mindset when I’m working on a game design. Early in the process it is important to put the elements together and make a prototype. You can’t take a hammer to it unless you know what you want to remove.

Once you’ve hammered away the big chunks then your mindset changes. You’ve got the mechanics you want. Now it is important to figure out how to balance the mechanics and the currency and the other elements in the game. You go from removing elements to refining elements. That’s a lot of work, but it is also one of the most rewarding parts of the design process. Just a couple weeks ago I had refined an element for Brooklyn Bridge and one of the players mentioned how it took it from “Good” to “Special.” That’s really what you’re looking for during Chisel Time.

How do you design games? Do you start big and remove things as you go? Or are you the opposite where you start with a simple element (mechanic or component) and then add the things that are needed?

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Trading Post: Path to GenCon

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I have a new game design I’m working on and today I am posting the last of 4 articles about it.  Here are the four articles in this series:

  1. 5-16-13: Origins of Trading Post
  2. 5-23-13: Early Prototying
  3. 5-30-13: Hiatus and Re-design
  4. Today 6-6-13: Path to GenCon

Today we’re looking at my path forward with Trading Post as we near GenCon. I am hoping to have a game that has been playtested, is fun, and is able to be played near the Blue Noodle (UnPub area).  So I’ll cover some development and what I’m hoping will happen with the game.

The Development Phase

Currently the game has not been played. What? You mean you’ve been reading a month’s worth of posts about some guy’s game that hasn’t even been played? Yes. And thanks for reading! I have nearly all the components together for the game. All that is missing is a scoring track and coins. Here is a picture of the game in its current prototype state:

Current Trading Post prototype. I think it at least looks cool!

Current Trading Post prototype. I think it at least looks cool!

So let’s talk about the different components that we see in that picture and discuss their purpose in the game.

Each player starts with a meadow and a hill. Therefore they have access to water and lumber.

A player’s territory.

Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. In the center is the land portion or map portion of the game. Each player has their own region, which is shown on the right. It is a player’s objective to explore their territory throughout the game. As they explore their territory they will draw a tile from their land tiles. These tiles are shown in the image above as the stack of hexes next to the player mats. The tiles will be either Meadow, Hill, Forest, or Mountain.

On the right of the map portion is the tree of buildings. Besides exploring your territory during the game you will also want to build buildings. The downside of building is that you lose a resource region of your territory. The upside is that you have a new trading opportunity in your own territory. Other players may visit it to complete the trade shown on the building hex, but they will have to pay you to do so. Buildings also count towards some of the scoring cards, which I will explain below.

To the left of the map portion are the resources. There are four natural resources in the game and four man made resources. The four natural resources are gained by harvesting them within your territory. The man made resources can be earned through the trade opportunities in certain buildings.

Example of a "Blue" order. This requires a Water and a Hat (Fedora?). The player earns 7 points.

Example of a “Blue” order. This requires a Water and a Hat (Fedora?). The player earns 7 points.

Below the map portion in the image are the Orders cards. Thematically here the Trading Post is requesting certain orders to be fulfilled. On your turn you have the opportunity to fulfill any number of these if you have the action points available. Along with building buildings it is also critical to fulfill orders during the game. This is a significant way to earn points. It is also a way to earn endgame points if you have a scoring card that requires certain colored orders be fulfilled. Once orders have been fulfilled, at the end of the current turn they are restocked to the number of players.

In the image the game is set up for six players. Each player has a player mat, their ten territory tiles, a pawn for the scoring track that is not in the image, and two scoring cards. Each player will also have some coins to begin the game, but I have not yet totally figured out the role I want coins to play in the game. They may ultimately be excluded.

Scoring cards represent hidden endgame scoring conditions. These are similar to the route/destination tickets in Ticket to Ride. Some of these are requirements for building certain combinations of buildings. Others are for fulfilling certain combinations of orders. But they are all ways to score points at the end of the game. I chose this because I like all players to be able to hold on to hope. And endgame scoring is a mechanic for hope.

The player mat is where I think a lot of the interesting strategy comes into play. The mats in the picture do not have numbers on them, but you can imagine each row having 0 1 2 3 4 5 on them. Each row is a different action. The number on which your cube sits tells you how many of that action you have available on your turn. At the start of the game all players have two of each action available. On your turn you can do three different actions, each as many times as your cubes indicate. The cool part is that as those actions decrease, other actions have to increase equally. What we have here is a zero-sum action point allowance system. Here is an example of a first turn where the player has chosen to EXPLORE twice and HARVEST twice. This allows them to discover new parts of their territory, set themselves up to have more resources available on subsequent turns, and have some resources to use on their next turn. So they spent a total of four action points. Then they have to move non-used actions up by four points. In this case they chose to increase FULFILL by 1 and TRADE by 3.

Player performs EXPLORE and HARVEST twice each. Then chooses to increase FULFILL one spot and TRADE three spots.

Player performs EXPLORE and HARVEST twice each. Then chooses to increase FULFILL one spot and TRADE three spots.

On their next turn they will be unable to explore and harvest. So likely their only option is to move their pawn to the Trading Post and hope they can fulfill an order or perform a trade based on the resources they harvest on their first turn. I think having this zero-sum action point allowance system in place will lead to some tense decisions in the game. Players will have to make sure they’re leaving themselves with the action points they want for the next turn.

Obviously, since this hasn’t yet been tested, this zero-sum action point allowance system will have to be extensively played. That leads me to the next thing I wanted to mention…

Playtesting

The first time I tried to play Scoville it played through to the end in a surprisingly well manner. I am a little worried about that with Trading Post. I feel like this will require much more testing than Scoville to get it to a point where I am comfortable showing it to a publisher. But GenCon is two months away, so the testing shall commence soon.

My main objective with any playtesting is to continually make sure the game is any fun.

It’s all about fun, right? Who wants to play a boring, crappy game with some weird, offbeat theme that doesn’t relate to anyone?

Now, perhaps there are a bunch of you who think the western trading post scene is for old guys who grew up watching John Wayne. I can assure you that in Trading Post out here a man settles his own problems. Trading Post is designed with a Euro identity in mind, but without anyone from the 13th-18th centuries looking boring on the cover of the box. I am very excited about this game and its potential.

Perhaps the most important step in the Game Design process!

Perhaps the most important step in the Game Design process!

I am fortunate to have a great group of friends who are willing to playtest my games here in town. So I am guessing they’ll try out this one as well. Since playtesting will be my focus for Trading Post over the next two months I figured I would list the things that I view as important during the playtesting phase of game design.

  • Keep your design objectives in mind – do not get carried away on wild tangents just because one player mentioned something unusual. Keep asking yourself why you are designing this particular game and why you think it is unique and interesting.
  • Offer bribes of beverages, snacks, and an awesome atmosphere to lure playtesters. And telling them their name would be in the rulebook if it were to get published doesn’t hurt either!
  • Try to make sure the game is playable before subjecting anyone to it. This means solo playtesting.
  • Don’t change major things on the fly during a playtest.
  • Don’t implement more than one major change at a time between playtests – if you add two things and the game gets way better or way worse you may not know which change should be attributed to the difference in play.
  • I recommend playtesting at least ten times before integrating major changes. This gives you a solid pool of plays from which to draw an understanding of an “average” game and also gives you enough opportunity to perhaps see any unusual play.
  • One of the keys to playtesting is watching for patterns. If several different people all mention the same thing (not in the same playtest) then you’d better start paying attention to it.
  • And I’d like to recommend shooting for a playtest goal of 100 playtests, but I’ve not done that with my games, so how could I hold you accountable. Do it! I don’t. You should. So 100 it is!

Those are just some guidelines. I also like to get into some nitty gritty stats when playtesting. For Trading Post I’ll be keeping stats on how often each color of orders get fulfilled, how often each type of orders get fulfilled, how often players will get to the green buildings, and so much more. There is a lot I could analyze with Trading Post so I have another recommendation for playtesting:

If your design is complex, playtest the game ten times and only focus on one element. Make no changes to anything else. Once that element seems “good,” move on to another.

I think I will have to proceed this way with Trading Post. I may start by watching how the buildings get purchased and built for a set of ten playtests. Then for the next ten I may focus on how the scoring conditions seem to play out. (Note: the data from the first ten playtests where scoring conditions were not the focus can still be used in this portion of the playtesting).

My goal over the next two months is to get 15 playtests completed. That’s one every four days, which might be a bit much, but you gotta have ambition if you wanna get anything done! Entering Protospiel-Milwaukee I had had 18 playtests in on Scoville. By then, even with only 18 under my belt, I felt I was able to teach it quickly and explain the thrust of the game. That way I was not wasting other playtesters time. I hope to meet this goal so that I don’t waste anyone’s time at GenCon where there is so much awesomeness to be had!

Pitching at GenCon

Well I’d be a knucklehead if I assumed that a game that hasn’t even yet been played could be pitchable by GenCon. That will depend on how playtesting goes. So I am not going set of goal of pitching this game while there. My goal for moving forward with this game as GenCon approaches is to have something where the wrinkles have been ironed out and it seems fun.

But for those of you who may be pitching your own games I recommend reading the following two articles:

The first is something you should probably be working on right now if you haven’t already done it. The second is an awesome guide to how it all works and how to do it right. I’m guessing my 2014 GenCon will be more about pitching than my 2013 GenCon.

While I won’t be pitching the game at GenCon I will definitely have at least one copy with me. If you want to give it a shot just let me know and we can schedule something! Head for the Blue Noodle! (www.UnPub.net)

Path Forward for Trading Post

Now I just gotta sucker my friends into playing an unpublished game that likely has no balance, and no reason to be good. Of course I’ll have to figure out those insignificant things like what you actually do on a turn. But I’m getting very close to solo testing. If this game seems to work after a decent amount of playtests then I’ll likely send a copy into the Prototype Penpal Program run by Grant Rodiek. It’s a great way to get designer level feedback and to see if your game is broken. Plus, it’s always fun to know that somewhere out there other people are playing your game!

Well I hope you’ve enjoyed my articles over the past few Thursdays about Trading Post. I’ve received some interesting feedback already and I appreciate all the kind things you’ve all said. I hope that this game seems fun to you. I’ll keep moving forward with it and will definitely keep blogging about it. Someone also suggested making Thursday the default Trading Post day. We’ll see. Thanks for reading! And don’t be shy with any comments about any of this.

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