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Subject: Protospiel Chicago Adventure rss

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Jerason Banes
United States
Des Plaines
IL
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mb
I had the awesome opportunity to attend Protospiel Chicago over the weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it's an opportunity for board game designers and volunteer play-testers to meet and test one-another's games.

As a creative individual, I can tell you that accepting criticism is easily one of the hardest things any creator can do. Feedback, even when it's helpful, can be very intimidating and make one feel less than capable. Yet no creative process can occur in a vacuum. New viewpoints and ideas can be critical to achieving success.

The fact that so many designers had the courage to put their creations up for criticism is a testament to our industry and the fortitude of those in it. Board game designers are unlikely to get rich off their ideas. They do it for the love of creating something amazing.

For my own part, I came to the convention to put Stellar Armada through the wringer. While the game has received extensive play-testing and had numerous aspects "tuned", there is always room for improvement. My own fears included that my play-testing was not broad enough and people would actually hate it (a fear personally echoed by a number of my fellow designers!), questions over whether the instructions were comprehendible, and interest in learning whether or not 4 player would be achievable with the Stellar Armada game mechanics.

When I arrived at the event, I claimed a table and immediately setup for both the standard and deluxe editions of the game. To help my table stand out a bit, I deployed a 6'x3' mat from GameMatz that happens to align well with my game's logo and theme. GameMatz' solar eclipse artwork is WAY better than mine, but mine is apparently good enough to where I got questions as to whether I had "appropriated" the art from the mat. (Look up "Solar Eclipse" artwork tutorials to learn how to make the same design we both use.)

Most people seemed to prefer the $5 deluxe edition (and who wouldn't?) but the components for the $1 standard edition were also well received. A number of people were impressed that I was able to get the component costs low enough to produce the two versions. Though it is worth noting that a few stretch goals will need to be hit before the $5 game is quite as nice as they reviewed!

Play-testers almost universally LOVED the game! The general reaction was that it was fast, fun, and well packaged. The translucent gems used in the deluxe version were well liked and I received questions about where to source the parts. In one case I handed out a promotional card for AdMagic's Print and Play service to help a fellow designer take his game to the next level. (Jeremy, your game is awesome! Contact me when it's ready and I'll give it a plug!)

Quite a number of people tried my game. I was able to obtain gameplay reactions from most of them, but there was one fellow in a M.U.L.E. shirt (sorry I can't remember your name!) who tried it with a friend while I was unavailable. He seemed very impressed with the design, but I hope the blind test worked out!

I really want to thank everyone who tried my game. I got a lot of really good feedback. In particular though, I feel it important to call out Michael, Daniel, Warren, and Carl. Your feedback in general was amazing, but your willingness to help get 4 player over the line was incredible!

Ok, that's enough background. Let me break down the details of what I learned.

Snowballing: A number of designers pointed out that the mechanics resulted in a snowball effect toward the end of the game. This was not a surprise to me as it was an intentional design decision. Having played a number of war games, I hated when you'd end up with a long grind at the end of a game because a player who had no hope was trying to come back. I wanted to remove that frustration and keep games short. The designers tended to agree with (or at least accept) this reasoning and it did not become an overwhelming issue. However, Michael did make a small rules tweak that I think I will implement...

Damage Overflow: The rules of Stellar Armada specify that damage to the shields overflow into ships systems. Damage to ship's systems overflow into the reactor. To increase the balance of the game Michael suggested that damage to the shields should not overflow. This had the side effect of increasing the value of the Masers (energy weapons). Basically, a missile against one point of shielding becomes a waste of a perfectly good missile if it hits. But firing three Masers means that one hit would take down the shields while subsequent hits could damage ship's systems.

Rules:
I had printouts of the rules available since prototype quality prints of the cards are still hard to read. Getting the rules right is hard for any game designer. And if I'm honest, I don't think I've ever met a rule book I liked. Far too often I find myself having to look up "how it's played" videos.

Players who did a blind test were confused by the rules. They found the game very easy once it was explained, but their own pre-conceptions appeared to interact badly with the design of the components. In particular, the play-mat is designed to let you know how many systems you have and track damage to those systems. But players often thought the pieces were to track their available action points and got especially confused when they tried to understand what the reactor was for.

The suggestion was to have some visual diagrams in the rules to explain the segments and behavior of the ships. Based on what I observed, I think this is really good feedback and I'm working on such rules right now. My challenge will be to figure out what I can ship with the game without jacking up component cost. Being able to put materials online is amazing, but I still want *something* in the box that's good enough not to require players to visit BGG. I'll be working that out over the course of the campaign.

Four Player Game:
I had just about given up on trying to test for four players. Getting one or two players together to test is not a huge problem. And some of those players will have good insights into what is or isn't working in a game. But pulling four people together with enough insight to help you through a challenge you didn't design for is quite the daunting task indeed!

Thankfully, Michael asked about four players when he tested the game. He suggested we try to pull four players together and give it a go. Since people seemed to have taken a break for lunch, I suggested we give his game a go first. Playing his game attracted several more players/designers which we were able to redirect to play my game afterwards.

The results of the first attempt were interesting. With four players the game becomes less of a focused battle and more of a free-for-all. I observed that gameplay slowed down and that the mechanics were no longer able to modulate how players interacted. The "slugging match" aspect of the game became a "decide who we're going to pick on" mechanic. Worse yet, some players were eliminated early which left them to watch everyone else compete.

When queried about the slowdown the players were surprisingly positive about it. They pointed out that the game was still plenty fast to play (~20 minutes instead of 10) and that the party atmosphere that emerged made things a lot of fun. In fact, you can see a lot of smiling faces in the attached photos.

To deal with the free for all problem, one of the designers (I think it was Carl, but my memory may be tricking me) suggested that players only be able to attack the people to their immediate left and right. The group felt so strongly that four player could work (which I wasn't convinced about at this point!) that they volunteered to go again with that small change.

This time a new interaction appeared. Weakened players were not destroyed but left in play. Stronger players realized that removing someone from play meant that they became more vulnerable. Better to leave their direct opponents in a weakened state as a shield while using psychology to redirect them toward the hidden opponent.

This emergent mechanic was *so much fun* that everyone at the table demanded I have a 2x deluxe level (i.e. four player) pledge in the Kickstarter! This sudden flip left me humbled as a designer and amazed at how radically the interactions had changed.
(We agreed that four player required the deluxe version because extra dice were needed as markers to track how many points had been spent on the engines.)

So, yes. Thanks to my fellow game designers there will be a four player deluxe package when the project launches this Thursday. I can't wait to see everyone there. This is going to be an amazing adventure!
 
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Jerason Banes
United States
Des Plaines
IL
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designer
mb
A couple of pics 'cause it happened:




More pics of the event over on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StellarArmada/posts/320803001599277
 
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