In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 9 - Lessons Learned from Prototype Testing

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the eighth part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 8 - Lessons Learned from an Alpha Test, I reflected upon what you could learn from testing using only a spreadsheet. In this ninth part, I look into how physical prototype takes the testing to the next level.

To prototype, or not to prototype, that is the question. A prototype requires a lot of work; the components have to created, printed, cut and assembled - and most likely completely redone after the first test. I still have my very first prototype of Nova Suecia: The Last Letter Home but none of the components created then are used in the current version of the game. With later games, I stayed in the alpha test much longer and didn't bother with the physical components until the game was more stable. The result was often that once crafted, the components could be used over several tests with only minor modifications. Thus I got more bold (or lazy if you prefer) and started to print my components through The Game Crafter instead of assembling them myself. Yes, it's an expensive solution but it does save time and lets me focus on what I like best with game design - the design of the actual gameplay.

However, Peoples - Civilizations is my biggest game by far, both in terms of components and strategic branches, so the alpha test became a long and cumbersome affair. How well does a certain civilization advance or development card pay off over 10-15 rounds? How do small and specialized peoples fare in comparison with larges and general ones in short and long term? Most importantly, are there any over-powered strategies or strategies that are doomed to fail?

There is a limit to how much a spreadsheet can test in a game like this. To build an automated simulation that covers all branches would take too long. To manually maintain a digital record of all actions and transactions would be too cumbersome and prone to errors. And even if a spreadsheet would be able to accomplish all this, it would still fail to answer the key question: how fun is it to manage all game decision with physical components? In the end, only a prototype could move the game to the next step.

After careful proof-reading, the prototype was ordered together with some new games and some new components for old games. With the exception of the "expected" issues (the occasional spelling error, wrong icon used at one place, the purple color being slightly too dark etc.), the first impression was good. The components had the right size and were easily distinguished from each other, the setup was quick and simple (after the many chits were punched and the many cards sorted that is), and the initial game turns were short and straight-forward. So far the game played as expected. Then came the doubts.

One important change from the pre-prototype testing was that the game speed had to be accelarated. This was accomplished through extra tribes and abilities from the start and lower costs and other barriers for acquiring advances and developments. While those changes looked harmless in theory, they did accelerate some strategies more than others. In particular, the rule that unique resources gave a bonus resource instead of being a prerequisite acquisitions gave some unexpected results which, in hindsight, should have been predicted.

A people starting next to an "early" luxury (available from start) would suddeny get 2 luxuries and be able to acquire an advance whereas before, a second luxury of another kind would have been necessary. This gave peoples with access only to "late" luxuries (available later in the game) a disadvantage.

Solution: Make all luxuries "early" but allow only one group of luxuries to be used at the time to keep luxuries limited in the early game.

A people starting with Economy and any productive development would not only get 1 extra resource but also be able to trade this extra resource with a neutral tribe for 2 other resources, resulting in twice as many resources as other peoples. Granted, combos like this are encouraged in the game but when they come so early, they make all other early strategies inferior.

Solution: Do not add any neutral tribes in starting regions.

Without the need of unique resources, the acquisition bonus for Culture and Religion tokens are worth less. (Why spend actions to save 1 resource when you could produce and gain 2 resources?)

Solution: Exponentially increase the bonus with the number of tokens. This will reward a focused strategy in the long run.

The bigger start areas mean that parts start merging already at the first new region, removing the discovery phase of the game.

Solution: Allow parts to grow a bit bigger before being forced to merge with each other.

Another interesting lesson from the prototype testing was more difficult to predict and shows the importance of physical testing: production actions are fun in a spreadsheet, because they increase the number of resources, but civilization actions are fun on a physical board, because they provide tactical and strategic alternatives to the routinely "cube pushing" that is so common in modern euro games.

But the old rules made civilization actions expensive and the alternative cost for them was high compared to the "accelarated" production actions that they became rare and hence the fun moments also became rare. The simple solution was to accelerate them so that they could be used more often and with greater effect.

Those changes certainly didn't come without pain. The first few turns of the test game were replayed over and over again and I often feared I would have to resort to a slower gameplay or more complex rules. But as is often the case, the simple solutions turned out to be the best ones and once they felt solid and simple enough to implement, the test could proceed. The position below shows the start of a test game where all peoples have taken about 10 actions per tribe each.

The Babylonians have founded an early settlement and even expanded it. Their initial growth has been severely hampered but they will be able to act at a higher rate from now on and it'll be interesting to see if and when they'll catch up.

The Egyptians have also delayed their growth bo spread their Culture. The strategy has already paid off plenty of luxuries that have been converted into advances. How will they best make use of them?

The Olmecs have a strong economy with a high resource production thanks to developments like Herding and Mining and they have also started trading with a neutral tribe. How long will they keep their development lead?

The Romans have focused on expansion and have already made contact with a neutral tribe to exploit. They will be able to take many actions between their Revolutions but will those actions be beneficial enough to compete with the more specialized peoples?

Another interesting observation is that all the four peoples ended up in the same half of the board, although with a lot of lakes separating them, while the other half of the board remains unchartered. Will the peoples move towards each other and will they come in peace or with arms? Or will they race to explore and expand in the unknown part of the world first? The answers are actually irrelevant - the fact that the questions can be asked is a good inidicator of a promising game!
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