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 a Human Test

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 discussed learning from alpha testing. In this ninth part, I move on to the additional perspectives received from human testers.

After a (too?) long maturity time, I finally demonstrated the core concepts of Peoples - Civilizations for an external test group and ran through the initial turns. The test gave me many valuable insights and confirmed many design decisions but also gave me many questions for the future development.

A pleasant surprise was that the civilization mechanics worked relatively smoothly.

The slow map revelation was perceived as a bit fiddly in the beginning but after a few rounds all civilizations had found their place on the map with plenty of unknown areas left to explore.

The one meeple-one action turns resulted in extremely quick turns and minimal downtime, although the production actions (lay down meeple and take resources) were perceived as less interesting. However, since the civilizations were still in their early stages, the more interesting civilization actions were still rare.

The slow map and the rare civilization actions also meant that the initial interaction was low. This was by design to allow players to lay the foundations for their civilizations first, similar to games like the computer game Sid Meier's Civilization. However, some player styles may prefer early encounters.

The many development cards were, as feared, overwhelming. 15 cards per era or 45 cards in total pose a huge threshold for new players. On the other hand, they also offer experienced players rich possibilities to shape and control their civilizations' destinies.

Those insights inspired several small fixes but also left me with some big design decisions.

One small fix was to let land areas be connected if separated by one sea area only. This promote growth and interaction without the necessity of sailing and is also thematically correct, since water connected early civilizations rather than separating them.

Another potential small fix could be to let civilizations start with level 1 in all civilization advances as well as a number of development cards to speed up the beginning. However, would need more tests with different player personalities first to assess the "fun factor" of the early civilization gameplay.

For the more radical design decisions, I have several ideas to work with.

One such idea would be to scrap the civilization advances and development cards altogether and replace them with a technology board. On the board, a player could choose her own path through the six civilization areas, e.g. move from Economy 1 to Economy 2 and then on to Military 2 (skipping Military 1). Each level would give a small and easy understood bonus, such as +1 food production.

This idea could be easy integrated with a round-based game instead of the current turn-based game.

The production round would see production in all areas simultaneously (and let players with fewer areas produce in some areas more than once).

The civilization round would also see simultaneous actions as much as possible.

Economy could let the players trade similar to in Mare Nostrum by offering as many resources as their Economy level and then take turns to take resources from each other. Resources could then have to be unique when buying things for them, e.g. a food cost of 3 would have to be paid with 3 different food.
Military could let the players pay for attack and defence, perhaps through a secret and simultaneous allocation between players similar to Diplomacy. A player allocating 3 military markers against another player's 1 military marker would get 2 victories used for raiding (cost 1, take 1 resource) or conquest (cost 2, replace 1 meeple).
Culture and Religion could let the players use the markers taken from their technology boards as monuments on the map, as could Civics let the players use the markers as cities.
Science could let the players launch discoveries on the map and either discover new land or establish relations with other civilizations. Relations could be tracked on a relation board, not unlike Peoples - Migrations, and be a prerequisite for interacting with other civilizations through the above civilization actions.

Those ideas would certainly make the game quicker and more interactive. However, it would also limit the players' wiggle room. Instead of combining development cards and civilization actions, they would simply accumulate "cube pushing" bonuses and take clearly defined civiliation actions in isolation. The thematic progress from taking production actions only to increasing productivity and engaging in civilization actions instead would also be lost. The game would be a streamlined and "modern" civiliation game but would it still feel like a civilization game? Clearly the answer can only come from further testing with different player styles.
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