Design Frustration

I had another play test of Plutocracy last night, as well as a test of a friends game that was inspired by Plutocracy. The fact that my unfinished design is interesting enough to inspire other designers is part of what keeps me going on an increasingly frustrating design.

The connection is games where players don’t have their own pieces but manipulate everything. We recorded a podcast about it after the test. It will be the next episode of The Board Game Workshop.

But this post is more about the frustration I’m hitting with Plutocracy. I’ve been working on Plutocracy for well over a year. In that time I’ve had 18 major versions. Many of those version changes happened after only 1 play test.

Some problems would be identified in a test, then when I worked on fixing them, I would go down a very different path and make major changes. So the design was changing a lot and not getting any deep testing on any version. 

I wasn’t bothered by this early on. It was a big design and I wanted to test a lot of ways to do things to see what worked.

After a lot of this very swingy design I thought I had settled on a version. I had a nice prototype made and I tested it several times. It even made it through the first 2 phases of a curation process one of my design groups does. Then I took a break from it, and worked on other things.

Eventually I came back to continue refining it. Testing showed a couple of things that could be tweaked to help player motivation. I thought I was near the end with small refinements to clean it up. Then I realized that I had streamlined away part of what I really wanted in the game. 

Over several versions I slowly removed the costs of actions and eventually got rid of costs entirely. This played smoother, but the heart of the game was always players using their influence to manipulate factions. Without paying for their actions players just collected influence for points.

So I embarked on another drastic change. Possibly the most drastic since the game began. One tester mentioned that it didn’t have to be a 4X game. Being a 4X was something that was strongly tied to this design from the beginning. My quick pitch to testers was, “a 4X game where players don’t control their own faction but manipulate them all.” But that tester made me realize that it being a 4X wasn’t really what I cared about.

I’m trying to really analyze this design now. Where is the fun? 

Players love the combat system. It has been almost unchanged since the first version. During one test a player even gave the combat system a standing ovation when they experienced the tension of it. 

Players also love the stock system of valuing influence. This was the very first mechanic of the game, and took a long time to get even close to right. It’s very important, but constantly needs to be rebalanced when I change other aspects of the game.

Finally, I want players to spend their influence to manipulate factions. I enjoy the tension of trying to collect points, but needing to efficiently spend those points to earn more.

Those are the three things I definitely want in the game. The issues that I need to work out have come up in every version of the game. 

Player motivation is really hard when no one is tied to a particular faction. This makes the game stagnate.

Depending on the action system, players can be very hesitant to do anything out of fear that the next player will benefit from their investment. This also makes the game stagnate.

The action of gaining influence is too powerful, so it’s all players do if they can, and if a player can’t they fall behind quickly.

Some resource loop usually gets out of hand and either the board gets emptied or the supply runs out, and players have way more points than intended. This is a hard piece to balance. Giving the sense of growth requires things to get better, but if they get better too fast, the game runs out of components and it stagnates.

Though this latest version is the biggest change, I’ve brought back many mechanics from older versions and they seem to have potential in this new system. But I think that is giving me the feeling of running in circles with this design. Maybe it’s actually just part of a long refinement process with a very large batch of potential mechanics

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Don’t forget to check out the design contest I’m running for The Board Game Workshop. We have lots of judges ready to give you some great feedback.

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