Context: Dauntless Hunters
The playtests for the rage mechanic have been a roaring success. It has functioned almost entirely as intended and this was reflected in the reactions of players to the game. After these tests the most common negative feedback was that the army lists were getting in the way of the game and needed some refinement. With that in mind I've moved away from the list presentation (top picture in the image) to a card presentation (lower picture in the image). I've not finished the update for all lists and haven't got playtest feedback on it yet, but I'd like to share five things I learned in the process of doing it and why they make me optimistic that the new presentation will be superior.
(1) It is better to over explain.
The #1 complaint was that players needed to keep going back to the special abilities list to find out what their units did. Even expanding to a bigger card there's not really space to write out the ability effects in full, but a one or two line reminder is enough to cover what an ability does 90% of that time. That way players only need to refer to the rules for edge cases, which greatly reduces the learning curve.
Ultimately a player who needs more information will suffer more for its absence, than a player who doesn't need it will suffer for it being present.
(2) Each game needs its own terms.
Every attack in the game had a tag "ranged" or "melee" because that's what a lot of games do. It's good to stand on the shoulders of giants and to develop good ideas from previous systems, but it's worth taking a step back and asking "Does this pull its weight in this game?" Ultimately, the answer was no. The only think that the ranged tag did (besides causing rule confusion about tag immunities) was make it so that the attack could be interrupted by a melee combatant standing nearby. Almost half of ranged attacks had an ability that exempted them from this. Clearly it's cleaner to list the interruptable ones than to say that they're all interruptable and put notes on half of them making them exempt.
The better term for the needs of this game - which may not match any other - is to have an "exposed" trait, which makes an attack vulnerable to being interrupted. That also opens up design space for powerful melee attackers who leave themselves open when they swing, which could be interesting to explore in the future.
(3) Designers do math so players don't have to.
On the old card units had an agility. This was the number that you added to the number '4' in order to determine what roll the player needed to hit. The new ones just show the number required to hit.
Whenever you require an X+Y calculation, ask "Do we ever need X or Y individually?" if the answer is no then there's clearly no reason to express them separately. Implementing agility as a penalty to the attack roll seemed reasonable at the time, but in retrospect it's plainly a presentation error that's requiring a player to do a calculation for no reason.
It doesn't matter that the calculation is easy and that most players will do it almost immediately. It's unnecessary work that doesn't add anything to the game. If it doesn't cost anything to remove, it's good that it's gone.
(4) Think about ordering.
The defences were previously listed as "Number of successes needed" "What you need to roll for a success" and "Number of hits required to kill". It makes sense to list them in the order that players will refer to them. Thinking through the process of making an attack the first step is to count how many successes you have, the second is to compare that to how many that you needed and the third is to see if that's a killing blow. Putting the icons in the order that the players will need to refer to them makes them that much more intuitive to use.
I'm less certain about the order of the abilities. My instinct is that as attacks are common and it's good to see everything that modifies your attack in one place is to list the attacking abilities together and follow them with all of the other abilities. I'll need some testing to see if that's actually a good approach - but the point is to actively think about the order of the list rather than presenting it in a haphazard manner or defaulting to something that does not enhance game play.
(5) Ask for help.
When I started working on this, after the test earlier this week, I made a quick post to ask for opinions on the new cards. Obviously I've not launched this project yet so there were no comments on this blog, but my friends on the board game geek mirror did not disappoint. They suggested a number of visual improvements that'll make the game easier to use, including right justifying the ability names (so the effect text immediately follows them) and adding lines to clearly differentiate where one ability ends and another begins.
There's also a suggestion about using some sort of iconography though I'm resistant to it so far. I think it's because each faction has a unique schtick, in some cases represented by a single ability on a single unit and an icon for a one-of-a-kind ability doesn't feel like a shortcut. However the core idea - having a visual way to break down the ability list and make it less intimidating - is a good one. So I'm considering alternatives, such as colour coding or icons for categorising abilities (perhaps into attack abilities, move abilities, faction unique abilities and other?) or something like that. I've not yet reached a conclusion as to the best approach, but the point is that asking for help considerably improved this iteration. There's no reason not to do it again, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject and it's added to the list of things to discuss with playtesters after future plays of the game.