Live Streaming a Play Test

Last night @BeatdaRobinsons played my prototype of Island Chain on their Twitch stream. It was an interesting way to experience a play test. 

It wasn’t quite a blind play test. I was watching the live stream and answering questions, but there was some delay and not physically being in the room made it feel different than a regular play test. I think it would be similar to having a play testing room with a two-way mirror. 

A big benefit of a live stream play test is the social aspect. Other people can find out about the game which can get you more play testers. Also other testers can watch it and possibly learn something from seeing a different group play the game.

During last night’s stream one of the other play testers, @KevNishimoto, was watching. During the stream the question came up of wether or not a Judge’s ability could make a new island. It turns out this is a commonly misunderstand rule that I need to clear up. Because he was watching, @KevNishimoto let me know that he was also misplaying that rule. 

The Judge’s ability can make a new island, if you were wondering.

I wonder if streaming my own plays of a prototype would be beneficial. It could still boost awareness and live viewers could bring up questions. Though it might not be any more useful than a demo video.

Overall it was a very useful play test and I think the format offers some unique benefits. 

The In Vino Morte Story

In Vino Morte was my first published game. I actually promised to write about it here a long time ago before I was posting regularly. So I’m finally fulfilling that. It has a somewhat unique story of how it came to be a Button Shy Wallet game.

I recently came across my first notes on the game. They are dated March 11, 2015. The very first version was a 2 player only game with two cards, one wine and one poison. One player would choose who got which card face down and the other would choose to swap cards or not. Then they drink and whoever had poison loses. It was inspired by the battle of wits in The Princess Bride and the game Win, Lose, Banana. It was an absurdly simple idea. 

I then made it multiplayer. You could have more players just by having more cards. The dealer chooses for everyone and then each other player gets a chance to swap with someone. In the first multiplayer rules there were 12 wine and 6 poison. At this point it was a single round and everyone who had wine won. 

I never made a prototype. I never tested it. I pretty much forgot about it. About a year later Button Shy had their first wallet game contest. I got really sucked into designing for the wallet game format. I came up with a lot of ideas. I prototyped many of them and play tested some of them. I didn’t have any play test groups at the time, so I was only able to test what I could get my family to play. 

I never play tested In Vino Morte for the contest. The only changes I made from my original idea were, having it be an even 9 wine and 9 poison, having multiple rounds so there is only one winner, and coming up with the name. I submitted it to the contest along with 9 other games. I didn’t think it had much of a chance. But it was a complete game, unlike some of the others I had worked on and not submitted. 

None of my games made the finals. Most were underdeveloped because I was working on so many different games. However, one judge, Josh Edwards,  was interested enough in In Vino Morte that he made a copy and took it to the finalist judging day to play. As far as I know Josh was the first person to ever play the game. 

That made enough of an impression that Jason Tagmire, owner of Button Shy, asked to publish it as a nano game in the board game of the month club. The nano game version had 4 wine, 4 poison and a rule card. It came out in the July 2016 Board Game of the Month Club. That was my first published game and very exciting. Once I got my designer copies, I finally played it for the first time. Turns out it was pretty good. This could have been the end of the story. But the lucky breaks kept coming.

In February of 2017 Jason had some room in a print run and asked if I wanted In Vino Morte to become a wallet game. Obviously I said yes. It went to Kickstarter in November and is now delivered to backers and available on teh Button Shy website. It was the first Button Shy game to sell out at Pax East this year. 

I never expected much from it as a design. I thought it was too simple to even bother play testing. But there is something about it that makes it more interesting than the sum of its parts. I guess the lesson is that you really need to play a game to understand what it is. And getting published takes a lot of luck.

UnPub 8 Recap

Last weekend I attended UnPub 8 in Maryland. It was my first UnPub and I had a great time. UnPub takes place over 4 days and its primary focus is having the public play board game prototypes. So it seems to work better for very developed games.

I had a lot of trouble focusing on what designs to prepare leading up to UnPub. I was trying to get a lot ready and finally trimmed it down to Plutocracy, Comic Auction, Grab Bag, and Council of Guilds. They were mostly ready to go with Council of Guilds needing the most work. I decided to have Plutocracy and Comic Auction as my main focus and bring out Grab Bag and Council of Guilds if I had some time with designers.

Plutocracy is a 4X game where players don’t have their own faction. Instead they influence all of the factions against each other to gain power and manipulate economies.

Comic Auction is a game of collecting sets of comic characters through auctions, but every comic has 2 characters so your opponents might want the same comics as you.

Grab Bag is a tactile speed game. Players race to blindly pull the most matching shapes out of a bag, without pulling any wrong shapes. With many similar shapes, it can be tough to figure out what you’re actually holding in time.

Council of Guilds is an economic game where players must change who sits on the council in order to make the most money from selling their goods.

Thursday night was a dinner mixer for the designers and VIP testers. It was a chance to meet some people I already knew, people I’ve only talked to online, and entirely new people. After the dinner the game room was open for play testing. I got in a game of Comic Auction. As a result of this game I changed the auction/selling system into a closed auction system instead. It was mostly an improvement but still needs work. I also played Elements of the Gods. It was an interesting game of pushing cubes around the board to achieve different color combinations for scoring opportunities.

Friday started with a few panels on game design and publishing. I only made it to one about self-publishing which was interesting. Then I went and setup my table for my 3-7 slot.

I decided to setup Plutocracy first because it takes the most time. Friday was a pretty slow day for my table. Over the 4 hours I got in one partial game of Plutocracy and one game of Comic Auction. The feedback from Plutocracy was useful and gave me a few ideas to tweak the rules. The game of Comic Auction let me test the changes I had made the night before.

After 7 was open gaming. I managed to get in one game of Council of Guilds which I realized late had become a 3 player minimum game. Luckily we found a third player. The game went well. It needs work but there is definitely something there. Then I had a chance to play Gerrymandering and Brain Freeze. Gerrymandering was a neat 2 player, spacial puzzle. Trying to gerrymander and win the most districts. The puzzle was a lot of fun, but the cards need to be streamlined more to ease play. Brain Freeze was an interesting game of trying to read your opponents and possibly team up to score just the right amount of points. A quick game with some good table talk and distrust.

Because I had the Friday night slot I also had the Saturday morning slot. So I was in to setup at 9:30am. I went with Grab Bag first this time. It has a decent amount of table presence when you pour out the piles of bits. And it plays fast, so I was hoping to get in a bunch of games. Saturday was a busier day and Grab Bag was a good choice. I had a few groups play and it went over very well. These were my very first plays of Grab Bag, so the fact that it worked was exciting.

After a few games of Grab Bag I put Comic Auction back on the table. I got a few games in and tested out some different things. Then I managed to get in a partial game of Council of Guilds. I again forgot it was 3 players and only had one other player. So we played a few turns and mostly just talked over the mechanisms.

I had hoped to get a chance to play some more games by other designers in the second block of the day, but my time quickly got taken up by eating and recording podcasts.

Sunday morning I got to play Sniper Vs. Thieves. A fun one vs many dice drafting game of trying to collect money from a heist and escape in time, all while a sniper is shooting at you and setting traps. The game was enjoyable and had a nice tension of trying to escape and also controlling the dice pool to slow down your opponents. The game went a bit long, which is something the designers were trying to improve, I think with a bit more movement it should be an enjoyable 45 minutes.

Before leaving I was able to get in one more game of Comic Auction and Grab Bag, both of which confirmed my feedback from earlier.

There are really two distinct aspects of UnPub in my mind, play testing games and socializing.

For play testing games, it went well. I had some trouble getting groups to the table sometimes. I think the way it is setup, shorter games and games with good table presence have a better chance of getting played. I did get useful feedback on everything I played.

Plutocracy will get some tweaks to let missions continue even after they aren’t worth points to prevent the game from stalling out in certain situations.

Comic Auction needs something else in it. I’m not quite sure yet, but some hidden information so the economy isn’t calculable or some alternate options for players.

Grab Bag went very well and I even thought up a theme for it that should really push it over the top. If I can get it working the way I envision, it could be a great candidate for mass market retail.

Council of Guilds was even rougher than I realized, but I still got some great feedback and ideas for moving forward. I’ll probably end up cutting the auction aspect. It was usually pretty boring and caused more problems than it fixed. I’ll also expand the interactions with the council since that is the enjoyable part of the game and needs to be more of a focus. I’m thinking of making it a simultaneous action selection game which I almost did before.

Overall it was a lot of great testing. I wish I had gotten in some more plays of Plutocracy, but at 90 minutes plus rules and setup, it didn’t fit into the schedule so well.

For socializing it was a fantastic time. The game design community is a bunch of great people. Playing other people’s games, talking about design, podcasting, eating, and meeting new people. It’s a whirlwind of activity. The worst part is that there isn’t time for everything.

I’d say my first UnPub was a success. And I won a free table for UnPub 9 in a raffle, so I’ll definitely be back next year. Hopefully a bit better prepared. Thanks to everyone who played games and hung out with me. I hope to see you next year.

Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals are important in life and in games. In my experience, people are extraordinarily bad at long term planning and “seeing the big picture”. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary hold over from the immediate need for survival. For whatever reason people can get lost if the goal is too far away or too immense to fathom. In games this can lead players to become disengaged, take excessively long turns, or just be confused.

If your game is short, then winning can be the short-term goal. But if your game goes on for more than 30 minutes, I think you would do well to have some intermediate goals for your players. These give them something to work towards without overtaxing their ability to plan.

Short-term goals offer a few benefits in your game. They can allow a player to build their strategy over time. If players need to think over their entire game plan at the start they will need to take some time to do that. However if they only need to plan to their first short-term goal it is much more approachable.

They allow new players to get into the game more easily. Especially if the initial goals are straight forward. They don’t need to understand every rule yet, just the few rules that let them get to their first goal. Then they can learn more to get to their second goal.

They allow players to roughly gauge how much progress they are making in the game. While a lot of games keep who is winning intentionally nebulous, knowing how many goals you’ve completed compared to your opponents can give you a rough idea of how you are doing in the game. Though goals do not have to be equal, 3 goals for one player may be more than 5 goals to another.

A variety of short-term goals can allow a player to map out their strategy. This is how many tech trees work in games. If I want to be able to use lasers, I have to first learn optics and electricity, but I can ignore cooking and gambling. Again, this can simplify an otherwise overwhelming game by allowing players to ignore sections of the game and focus on their strategy.

Having multiple paths of short-term goals to win a game helps the game to be more replayable. After wining one way players can try and win in a variety of other ways.

Give your players many things they can work towards and achieve in a game. Even if they don’t win, they will have a sense of accomplishment from completing short term goals.

Auction Mechanics

I’m currently working on 4 games with auction mechanics. This wasn’t intentional. After getting Plutocracy complete enough for the Cardboard Edison Award I started working on getting things ready for UnPub. My focus lately has been finishing games I’ve already started designing instead of following shiny new ideas. The 4 games I’m working on were all started at different times and coincidentally all have auction mechanics. So auctions have been on my mind a lot.

Auctions can be a tricky thing to design with because they give a lot of power to the players. If you have a very open auction where players are bidding on things that they do not know the value of, the results can be very lopsided. Even worse is when one player does know the value of things, they can easily get things cheaper than they should.

If the things being auctioned are very integral to gameplay and a player’s ability to win, it’s important that they understand the relative value of things before the auction. This could be as simple as listing the rarity of each item, so players know to bid higher to get the rare piece they need. Or having enough auctions in the game, so that messing up on a few will not ruin your chances.

Another consideration for auctions is how much you allow players to ruin their own chances of winning the game. If players can bid any amount of money on an auction, they can easily over pay and be out of the running. This can be held in check by giving players specific amounts they can bid.

The type of auction also has an impact on how much players can sway the game.

A once around auction gives players more information to use the later they are in the bid order. So earlier players will have to bid higher to try and win an auction if they think a later player also wants it. While the last player knows exactly how much they need to bid to win. It’s important that bid order changes in a game with once around auctions.

A blind auction can have a similar feel to a once around auction, but everyone is going first. So no player has the advantage of information before their bid. For this reason you can get a lot of higher bids if players think they are competing on an auction. You also need a way to deal with ties in a blind auction.

A continuous auction allows players to always outbid someone else. So prices can get much higher if two or more players are fighting over something. These auctions can take a lot longer, especially if players are allowed to make small incremental increases. This removes a lot of the player order advantage found in a once around auction. It can also incentivize players to bid on items they don’t want just to force another player to pay more. This can introduce a push your luck aspect because they must be careful not to get stuck paying for the item they don’t want.

Whatever type of auction you use, try to establish some boundaries to control the players. These could be visible boundaries like predetermined price limits or invisible boundaries like a very tightly controlled economy that doesn’t allow any player to be too far ahead in cash for an auction.

Plutocracy Continues

I’ve been working on Plutocracy a lot lately to get it submitted to the Cardboard Edison Award. With the changes added last week it really seems like the major design portion is complete and now it needs development. I’m happy with the game arc, the player incentives, the timing, even the theme has become more specific.

I just found my first design document for it, which I started on December 13, 2016. The very first line of my design notes is “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue.” That was the core of what I wanted the game to be.

It began life as an action card drafting game with a modular board. Players manipulated 4 tracks; economy, military, technology, and culture, for 3 kingdoms. It was supposed to have a lot of area control to push combat, but the economy manipulation was so rewarding no one did anything else. From that first design through player decks, rondels, static and modular boards, and buildings I’ve come to the current version which is still very much the “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue” idea I had back then. Though the currency is influence and the political intrigue is very high level inter-faction conflict, it is more solidly a 4X game.

Games can change drastically during design. When you start a design, make one simple, solid guidepost. Use that as an idea to build everything else off of. In a creative endeavor that can easily circle back around on itself it’s helpful to be able to see where you started from.

That guidepost can change, but if the guidepost changes I would say you are designing a different game, which is fine. Sometimes one game design is the inspiration you need for another game. But always check what your game has become against that original idea.

Here is some Plutocracy stuff, since I worked so hard on it.

Plutocracy Rules

When Things Work

It’s nice when a design finally clicks. The pieces come together and it can start to handle the pressure of players pushing the game.

Last night I had two play tests of Plutocracy. In the second game one player kept completing missions. Completing a mission gives you a point and expands your abilities for the future. My thought was that players would complete a roughly equal number of missions each game.

While this player was grabbing up all the missions I was worried that it would break the game and I would have to find a way to fix it, again. But in the end he lost by 2 points. While this is only one instance and the game will need to continue being stress tested, it was nice that it managed to pull through without a runaway winner.

The reason it held together was that missions have diminishing returns. They are always worth 1 point but the extra actions you gain from them become less useful as you get more. And there are other parts of the game that will earn you more points than the missions as the game progresses.

You probably have an idea of how you want players to play your game, and if you have good incentives, players should generally follow your plan. But be aware of other things players could do and if those things would be a dominant strategy.

Your Game is Harder Than You Think

If you’ve been reading the blog or following me on social media you are familiar with my game Plutocracy. I’ve been working on it for about a year now and it has been a difficult problem to solve, but one that is so intriguing I can’t let it go. I’ve written about the trouble of making player incentives and my attempts at streamlining the rules. My dead ends and my redirections. This post isn’t about Plutocracy, though my play test of it last night is the inspiration and will serve as an example. This post is about how difficult it is for a designer to understand how complex their game is because they understand the complexity of their game.

I wrote previously about my idea to give players a better stake in the game by adding pawns that represent the player and limit their area of influence. I implemented this change for last night’s test. This was the major change of this version. It also had a different board structure and modified scoring, but the majority of mechanics were almost identical to previous versions.

The group play testing was one of my regular groups. They have all played Plutocracy many times before. They are all game designers and experienced players. I had high hopes for this version. I felt it would solve the incentive problem and allow me to move forward to adjusting numbers to fine tune the game. So I was surprised when the game mechanics gave them so much trouble.

As I said, the majority of mechanics hadn’t changed. They just had a pawn on the board that meant they couldn’t affect planets too far away. But this one change made the game different to them. So they kept questioning how things worked and my answer was usually, “The same as it did in the last version.”

In the end, the game went alright. It did a lot of what I wanted, but there were some big issues with the initial setup that caused some problems for the whole game. The concept I was reminded of during our discussion was that when you design a game, it makes sense to you in a way that no other person can quite grasp. This can lead to the issue I had.

The changes I made were minor to me, the game still had the same mechanics, but a game is much more complicated to anyone who is not the creator of it. So if you make a design and it is simple and clear in your head, everything fits together, is intuitive, and flows well. It’s probably more complicated for players than you realize.

It’s hard to notice because it’s a matter of perspective that you, as the designer, can’t have. Perhaps putting a design away for a year or two so you completely forget about it could help. But I think the best thing to do is realize it will happen, and play test until it works for your audience, not just you.

What Makes Your Game the Best?

The Jones’ Theory is a system used to cull a board game collection. The basic idea is that you only need one of each type of game in your collection. So you choose the best of that type and get rid of the rest. This could be interpreted in different ways depending on how granular you want to be with your types. You could use deck builders as a single type or differentiate deck builders that start with stacks of cards like Dominion from deck builders that shuffle and have a buy row like Ascension. So the theory can be quite flexible.

When designing games a question that comes up is, “does anyone want another ______ game?” This question ties in perfectly with the Jones’ Theory. Except instead of asking if a game is good enough in its type to keep or buy, you are asking if it is good enough to make.

I think this is an important question to ask yourself at the beginning of a design. What about the design justifies the time, effort, and money you will need to invest to create the game?

Just like with culling a collection with the Jones’ Theory you can have a lot of flexibility on how you define a type. Are you designing a worker placement game that you are comparing to every worker placement game, or are you designing a family weight worker placement game which would only be compared to other lighter worker placement games? So it’s important to define your audience to make this decision.

You could compare on genre, theme, price, anything really. But once you decide on your criteria you have to prove why your idea will be the absolute best thing in that type. If it isn’t going to be the best, then it isn’t worth making.

You can certainly get specific enough with your criteria that any game is the best, and that’s fine. But if your goal is to publish the game and sell it, your criteria should be something that a large enough group of people agree with.

What makes your design the best?

Brevity

I like to keep things brief. Only use as much time as you need. Don’t over explain or repeat things unnecessarily.

I try to use this in my game design. I want the game to play as quickly as possible without feeling that the experience was rushed or cut short.

I try to use it in my rules writing. Because of this, I often avoid stating things that happen as a result of following the rules I did write. This can cause confusion though.

When you are writing rules you are trying to explain a system that is very obvious to you, because you invented it, to a person that likely has none of the assumptions that you take for granted. You may even disagree on the definition of the words you are using. This makes it necessary to state what you think is obvious, because it almost always isn’t obvious to the reader.

This leads me to another trick I’ve started to use when writing my rules. If I find myself using a lot of words to describe a mechanism, I cut it from the game or drastically simplify it. If I don’t have the patience to write it out, I can’t expect a player to have the patience to learn it.

Be clear, but be brief.