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The Tasty Minstrels - TMG Blog

Tasty Minstrel Games was started in early 2009, and has become a favorite game publisher for many people.
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Anatomy of a Hit... Shorter Game Play

Michael Mindes
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Mountain Green
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Let's face it... There is a fixed amount of time in any given day, regardless of how much we might try to bend that fact to our advantage. Couple that with the fact that every year there are HUNDREDS of new games released.

The result is that people do not have the time to play a large percentage of games released in any given year. There are a number of acclaimed 2010 releases which I have not yet played despite the desire, including Troyes, Vinhos, and Dominant Species.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I can both more easily know about new games so that I can be more discerning about what I try and play and the costs/risks of production of games are reduced. These combine to an analysis paralysis when it comes to game choice.

Time, Time, Time, see what's become of me

While I look around for my possibilities. I was so hard to please.

I know that if a game will take me an hour to learn and 2 hours to play the first time, then it better be a fantastic game! If a game is going to take 1 minute to learn and 10 minutes to play, then I will be wary of the enjoyment I am likely to get from it. The sweet spot for me is probably 20 minutes to learn and less than 1 hour to play. That is so I know I will not waste too much time on a bad game or game that I do not like, while if I really enjoy it, then I will be able to come back to it often.

Now, if you can create a game which takes 1 hour to play, but feels like you make the quality decisions and feel of a game that takes 2 hours, then you should do well.

For gamers, it will feel like stepping into a time machine. I spent 1 hour playing the game, but I got 2 hours worth of game play out of it. Who does not want that?

Building The Time Machine

The first step in building the time machine is to have a complete game (preferably enjoyable). The second step is to remove, adjust, and fix any parts of the game which take too long for what they are worth or require too much physical manipulation (like shuffling cards). Yes, I am talking about you Dominion, Ascension: Deckbuilding Game, and Eminent Domain.

A good example of a quality time machine is the Ascension: Deckbuilding Game iPad app. While I enjoy Ascension and think it is a decent game, I do not own it, nor would I likely play the physical version very much. However, when the physical manipulation is removed and instead of taking 45 minutes that game take 5-10 minutes, I feel like I am in a gaming time machine. Since I have bought the app, I have probably averaged 3 plays per day over the course of several weeks.

What To Remove And Streamline?

"The second step is to remove, adjust, and fix any parts of the game which take too long for what they are worth". Wow, that is really general, and is barely helpful. Let's look at some of the items we regularly look at removing/fixing.

1. Rounds of game play. What would happen if the game was just a round shorter? Test it and find out. If the game is just as enjoyable and does not feel like it abruptly ends, then keep the round out. Also pay attention to the late rounds and see if players are generally doing the same thing. If they are, then remove the game play aspect and make it an end of game special resolution (to do what everybody does).

For example, when we started development on Belfort, the game was 9 rounds. The first round was almost always identical, so it was removed and everybody started from the result of the first round. The final round was removed and the game did not feel short. Now Belfort is over 7 rounds and takes 20-30% less time to play for the same amount of game play.

2. Supplementary rules and options. Determine philosophically what a game is about and the game play should be like. Anything in the course of game play which is outside of that core should be removed and tested. Test the resulting game with that piece removed, is it better? If yes, then keep it and you have just shortened the game.

For example, Martian Dice used to have different types of scoring for abducting earthlings and destroying cities (with different military defense types). While that version was good, it just felt like another dice game which is too affected by the randomness of dice. Once we removed the second scoring option and implemented the tank vs. death ray threshold for scoring, then the game got faster (about 15% faster) and more enjoyable. It brought us closer to the core fun of rolling 13 unique dice and having meaningful decisions as a result in a very short period of time.

3. Physical Exchange Methods. If you have a constant exchanging of physical pieces, try to think of a way to make that easier. Common items are centralized tracks or dials.

4. Player Negotiation. We try to avoid having player negotiation in game, because it adds to the time required to play significantly. Especially if I am playing, since I drive a hard bargain! If we wanted to publish a game which featured negotiation, then it would need to be the core of game play like with Catan or Genoa.

5. Available Information. When publishing games into the hobby game market, you must expect to have players utilize and analyze all available information. It will happen. If something does not need to be known to all players, then make it unknown. It will speed up the game play.

For example, Homesteaders suffered significantly from analysis paralysis from having too much information available. Early versions made ALL buildings (and there were more than there are now, and they were all unique) available at ALL times. I think there were over 60 buildings! In addition, all of the resources a player had on hand were public information. This led to insane calculation and optimization of the auctions every round, and recalculation. I don't know how long it used to take to play a game, but now it only takes about 1 hour! I would guess it was at least a 50% decrease in time required.

Conclusion

Even after a game is finished, works well, and is fun, there is still a significant amount of work which needs to be done to make it the best game that it can be. So work hard, because it is hard work. A complete design is really only the end of the beginning.

I don't know about other publishers, but if you as a game designer place a game with Tasty Minstrel Games, then expect that we will spend a lot of time working to improve the game and that designer feedback and communication is necessary. We don't want to spend time exploring an option that you already know does not work!
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