The perfect way to start 2012 is with a playtest.
Yesterday I ran my first playtest of 2012. This also marked the resumption of testing after the predictable holiday unavailability of my testers.
The results of this test were a little odd. In the first age, the very first three cards drawn from the Progress deck were all the city cards. The second age also saw an improbably early draw. This meant that the game, overall, was about 5 or 6 turns shorter than normal distribution would have made it.
Normally this would not be a problem. However, my main testing focus at the moment is balancing Age 3 advancements and Titan cards. Both of these are late-game or end-game mechanics. If the game is shortened from 25 rounds to 19, players will not have time to use these effectively.
The players were still positive about the experience and liked the tension of the unpredictable end of the age, but I didn't get to see anyone try to abuse the Advertising advancement. My notes are here.
Saturday was the monthly meeting of the NYC Board Game Designers group. I playtested three games for other designers and watched the "beginner" version of Titans of Industry with four players.
The three games I tested were a storytelling-themed game, Gil Hova's Sword Merchants (née Pax Robotica), and Mark Salzwedel's Monorails of Mars.
The first game, about storytelling and lying, seemed to be relatively early in development. Very quickly I found holes in the incentive system that strongly discouraged both lying and calling someone out on a lie. These two activities were really the only fun thing about a game. The rest was just an obvious playing of a small number of randomly-drawn cards.
Design Tip*: incentivize the fun parts of your game.
Following that, I moderated the Titans of Industry playtest. There are some interesting issues to discuss in designing beginner's versions of an advanced game. I will give them the treatment the deserve in my next post.
Next, I played Gil's game. At this point, it's an action-selection/economic-engine game with too few actions and an economic curve that feels choked off. The highlight (for me, probably not for Gil) was when I forced him to change the rules mid-game by creating a way to abuse the special cards and get six consecutive actions in a game where it is incredibly important that you only get to do one thing at a time.
Last up was Mark's train game. Unfortunately, I don't think I was very useful in this test. I played the game fine. I even won. But I don't feel like my feedback helped much. The only thing I spotted was that his version of the steam-engine-level mechanic was much too expensive to justify purchasing the fourth (and final) level. The issue with me is that I'm just not able to engage well with train games, including the Railroad Tycoon-type games, to which this seemed to belong. It is odd, because my preferred game profile (heavy/economic/stock) would suggest train games are right up my alley. Somehow, they never clicked with me.
After the test, a handful of us went out to get some dinner and talk shop. I enjoy socializing with other designers. I feel camaraderie with the others yet unpublished and am reminded success is possible with the ones who have a box with their name on it.
*Design Tips are furnished with the caveat of eight years of design failure and zero published games.
NYC BGD Meeting - January, Part 2
I ran a test of Titans of Industry at this meeting. Specifically, I ran a modified, "Learning" version of the game. The differences for this version:
Remove a "Recyling Farm" card from the Progress deck.
Advancements are removed from the game.
Titan cards referencing Advancements are removed from the game.
Building Real Estate immediately scores you market share equal to the number of demand icons on that Real Estate card.
Locked (striped) secondary markets can only receive their default good.
The first two changes had learn-the-game reasons behind them. The next two changes are to deal with the effects of removing Advancements from the game. The last isn't actually a change in the rules, but is just an effect of Advancement-removal. I listed it because it is important to draw attention to it as a "change" from the normal game. Let's examine these individually.
1. Remove a "Recyling Farm" card from the Progress deck.
This speeds the game up. The main goal of a learning version of a game is to present the game's ideas and mechanics to a player in an easily digestible form that prepares them to play the real game. By removing one of the Recycling cards from the Progress deck, Ages not only end faster, but they are guaranteed to end at some point. This guarantee breaks the game for an experienced player, as knowing when an Age will end allows a player to abuse the Age-end sequence. However, since this is a learning game, I am less concerned with presenting a fully balanced experience. I am just trying to get players to the point where they can play the balanced, real game.
2. Advancements are removed from the game.
The 80/20 rule of learning a game is that a 20% increase in rules makes it 80% harder to learn the game. I just pulled that out of my . . . it's a fake rule. But it sounds right. For the learning version of a game, you need to introduce players to both the core mechanics and to the flow of play. In Titans of Industry, Advancements are not the core of the game (buying and selling in competitive markets). Advancements don't affect the flow of play (build facilities, then real estate, then the Age ends). Advancements are there to offer long-term strategic options as a counterweight to an otherwise highly tactically-oriented game. They are the perfect choice to remove from the learning game.
I could have also removed the Titan cards. However, players only actively engage with Titans cards at 3 points during the game (at the end of each Age). Removing them would not have noticeably decreased the up-front rules burden of the learning version.
Removing Advancements reduces the number of available actions on a player's turn from five to four. According to my totally-made-up rule, this 20% decrease should make the game 80% easier to learn.
3. Titan cards referencing Advancements are removed from the game.
This was a required change once Advancements were excised. Only two of the Titan cards are removed, so it is not a major change to the variety.
4. Building Real Estate immediately scores you market share equal to the number of demand icons on that Real Estate card.
A level one advancement scores a player points at the end of each age for each piece of Real Estate owned by that player.Without that advancement, one of the incentives to build Real Estate is removed. This will reduce the speed at which is it built, which will slow down the game. It is important for a learning game to be fast. That is why change #1 was implemented. Giving players immediate points for building Real Estate puts a little weight back onto the correct side of the scale.
Why not do the same in the normal version of the game? It is because I want a Real Estate strategy to be a conscious strategic choice by a player, not something you can casually do once or twice a game to grab spare points. In the learning game, it is less important to force long-term choices on players because they do not yet have the foundation in the game's mechanics necessary to make those meaningful choices.
5. Locked (striped) secondary markets can only receive their default good.
This wasn't actually a rules change. The locked secondary markets are unlocked by a level two advancement. Without the Advancements, that meant that these were permanently locked.
I think I made the wrong decision on this one. Instead of allowing them to be permanently locked, I should have made them completely unlocked. This would shift the game's balance, making Factories and Oil Wells less valuable because other goods can compete with them with no trouble at all. However, I forgot that learning games aren't about balance. They are about letting players discover the game's central mechanics and flow of play.
The core of this game is players competing in markets. By not allowing this competition between goods at all, I shielded players from competition. It may be somewhat frustrating to have too much competition, but even worse is being bored by having none at all.
By this point I'm sure I've enraged some people through my cavalier attitude towards balance in the learning version of this game. Part of me does feel that any version of the game should stand on its own. However, I feel that if there was a simpler, balanced version of the game that is perfectly suited to repeated plays on its own, then there would be no reason at all to have an "advanced" version of the game. Might as well just release the basic version and hold everything else back for an expansion.
I don't want to make that simple game. My goal isn't to have people play that simple game. My goal is to have people play the full game. The learning version is merely a tool to get them there. Like a rulebook or video, this is about education. That is why I'm not fretting what would happen if experienced players sat down to this version.
At some point I'll have a follow-up post looking at how other games have approached this issue. For now, please let me know how misguided I am about this in the comments.