Sunday, November 24, 2013

The First Revision(s)

I mentioned last post that I had my first playtest of Santa's Workshop, and I took a bunch of notes.  Well, I continued to write down thoughts at the they occurred to me during the week, and for the last several days I've been working on implementing some changes.  So, Santa's Workshop 2.0 is underway... or maybe it should be v1.1...nah, I think the first changes count as "major".

My notes since the 1st playtest...need to type them up!

The old board
One of the things I learned is that graphic design is really important.  On my first board, I had the coal mine (and it's cards) right next to the mail room.  When we took a card from the mailroom...almost every time, we flipped a card from the coal deck to fill in, instead of from the mail deck.  So, change #1 for the board, was to move those two decks of cards far apart from each other.  This change actually took up some space, so I went from four 8.5x11" pieces of paper to six.  (Actually, since PowerPoint puts 1/2" borders all the way around, when trimmed, they're 7.5x10".  Which reminds me...I have to figure out a better way to do this than in PowerPoint).  I also made some changes to the Reindeer scoring track, and how the Training Room works, and reflected that on the board.  Lastly, I wanted a better quality board.  My first attempt, I literally just scotch taped my four sheets of paper together.  The scotch tape didn't take to folding too well.  So...I decided to make an honest to goodness board.  I purchased some thick (0.05") chipboard, and some book binding tape, and hinged together six chipboards, and then taped my six sheets of paper on top using double sided tape.  It's not professional quality - not by a longshot - but it's a vast improvement.  (Word to the wise - make sure you plan out your hinges in advance!)

The New board
It even folds properly!

Another thing I tackled was making the language on the Coal Cards (which allow you to "cast spells" to help yourself or hinder your opponents) less ambiguous.  It was not at all clear when some of the cards should be played.  And cards that should be played in similar circumstances were sometimes worded differently "Play when in the Wood Shop" and "Play when producing wood", for example - so I went through and tried to make everything clear.  There will also be a section in the rules where I detail each card, because I think some of them are tricky enough to need more explanation than can fit on the card.

Speaking of the rulebook - my previous rulebook was 2.5 pages of essentially just reminders to myself.  I've now written an honest to goodness first draft of an actual rule book.  I think it's at 7 pages now...but I need to add the Coal Card descriptions.

Hows that for a 1st player marker?
The most recent thing I've been working on is overhauling the scoring mechanic for actually creating gifts.  The idea behind making the gifts is that they would be constructed from 3 main materials - fabric, wood and metal.  Now, I've borrowed an idea from the game Colosseum.  In that game, you are staging shows in Imperial Rome, and various shows have required elements - however you can choose to be skimpy on your show (and earn less VP) by not using all the required elements.  In Santa's Workshop, I have a mechanic that allow the player to use plastic in place of some of the materials.  I want there to be a decision that the player has to make - make the toy our of quality material, and score more, or use plastic, finish faster and start working on more toys.  In our playtest, no one ever opted to use plastic.  And we all went for toys with lots of metal parts.  That's because I was basing the score on worth of material - Fabric=1, Wood=2, Metal=3.

The turn marker...and friends
I felt that I needed a new scoring formula, and Tom and Becky had some suggestions.  I've now reworked the scoring formula - I've bumped up the base 3 materials by 1 pt each, and made plastic worth 1 pts (after all, even plastic toys bring joy to children).  I've also added a scoring element for the number of different materials used (to reflect the amount of effort that goes into gathering the materials), and the amount of time it takes to assemble the gift will affect the score.  So, now I have an honest to goodness formula that I'm using.  I don't know that it's perfect, and I'm sure I'll tweak it, but I feel that I have a good basis for it now.

Working the spreadsheet....

I will also be reworking the gifts in terms of the materials needed to make them.  Like many games, my scoring track wraps around the board edge, and goes from 0-100.  I had been keeping the scores fairly low on my gifts previous, in the 2-12 range mostly.  But that meant I didn't have a lot of flexibility to play with the amount of material that it took to build a toy.  I was trying to keep the scores around a 100 or less, and sure enough in our playtest, Tom won with 101 points.  In order to get more flexibility on the components, I think scores are going to go up, which means scores will be well above 100, maybe above 200.  And you know what - that's fine.  I'll just add in a couple of "+100" markers for each player.

Alright...that's enough for now.  Time to get back to working on formulas and graphic design....

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The First Playtest!

How's it look?  (note...NOT MY GAME!)
I have yet to talk about my board game design on this blog, mainly because I've taken my sweet time in getting around to working on it.  I've had the idea for the theme for well over a year, and in fits and spurts I'd written several pages of notes on game play, but I'd procrastinated on actually getting around and working on it!  As a married father of 2 young children, I'll blame the usual suspects - wife, kids, house work, etc.  What I really needed was a bit of a kick in the pants.  But let me back up a bit...why did I decide to throw my hat into the game design ring?  After all, it seems that at every convention, half the people there are talking about designing their own game.  And from listening to various podcasts, and hearing publishers, it's obvious that they're getting no shortage of submissions.  Add in the Kickstarter phenomenon, and I get the feeling that the market may even be a little glutted (or maybe a LOT glutted). 

So why jump in the fray?  Well, I'll blame my good friend Paul Owen a little bit.  Paul was fortunate enough to get his first game, Trains, Planes & Automobiles published in 2011.  Since I'm often hanging out with Paul at the two main board gaming conventions I attend, Prezcon and WBC, I started seeing some of the "inner circle" as Paul would socialize with other designers, throw ideas back and forth and even playtest some new games.  The enthusiasm and creativity amongst this group was contagious, and I decided that I'd like to give it a shot.  As the dad of two younger children (currently aged 6 & 9), my first inclination was to create a game that they could enjoy - but also that adults would like.  At some point, I hit upon the idea of having the players control teams of elves as they build presents in Santa's Workshop - and I tentatively titled the game just that - Santa's Workshop.  As I mentioned, I would scribble down notes to myself now and then, and eventually had a bunch of papers tacked to the corkboard by my desk.  But I was procrastinating on actually putting something together.

Earlier this year, I had the vague thought of having something ready to go by the next Unpub convention.  Again, I had heard Paul talk about his experiences at Unpub 3, and I thought that would be a great place to get good feedback.  But I hemmed and hawed, and summer turned into fall.  For some reason, I thought Unpub was in the Spring...but a few weeks ago I discovered that it was happening in the middle of January.  Cursing myself for procrastinating, I asked Paul how "finished" a game should be, and he indicated that many of the games there were roughly in the middle of the design process, still needing a few tweaks, but well on their way to completion.  I was a little dejected at this, because I didn't think I would have anything even "halfway" done by January.  I reached out on Twitter to the guys running Unpub, and the response I got from T.C. Petty III was that "notebook paper is's probably good if you've at least played it a time or two".  With that in mind, I decided I wanted to go for it, and not regret that I had to wait another year for the next full Unpub convention...and I promptly found that they had sold out their tables.  Convention director Darrell Louder gave me a ray of hope when he said that they were looking to add a few more tables.

Not the view from our seats
With that in mind, I set to the task of getting some kind of working prototype by the weekend of November 16-17.  My wife and I were traveling to Blacksburg, and my good friend Tom was going to be there, and I thought that would be a great chance for a first playtest.  So, over the course of a week or so, I put together a rough board, printed a bunch of cards, and ordered a bunch of meeples and wooden cubes.  By the time came to leave on Friday, I had a prototype!  Now, while in Blacksburg, I got the word that Darrell was opening 5 more tables, going on sale at 5:00 Saturday night.  I was at the Virginia Tech - Maryland game...and it went into overtime...causing me to stress that I wouldn't be at a computer at the 5:00 starting time.  Fortunately, the game only went one overtime - unfortunately, the Hokies lost :(.  However, we made it back to our lodgings in plenty of time.  When the time came to register, I promptly flailed as I forgot my Paypal password, and had to figure that the time I did, and tried to register, I got a "sold out" response, and my heart sunk.  Contacting Darrell via Twitter, he assured me that I had indeed registered - and apparently somewhere in the flail, I had actually registered twice.  He kindly refunded me the 2nd registration fee, and refrained from mocking me.  So, after all that, I was in for Unpub!  But...did I have anything worth bringing? 

I didn't think to take a picture until we were done!
After a quick dinner, I sat down with Becky and Tom and broke out Santa's Workshop.  A quick explanation of the rules, and we were off.  The game is essentially worker placement, as you use your elves to gather resources to build gifts.  There are a few other things the elves can do, such as feed the reindeer, and dig for coal (after all, there are the naughty kids to "deliver" to).  Although I'm a fan of euro games, sometimes I can find them wanting for player interaction.  I had long had the idea of having cards that would give players benefits, or allow them to hinder other players. However, in the week or so leading up to the playtest, I had the idea to add some "counter" cards to allow players to counter the cards of opponents.  I envisioned something along the lines of "Wiz-War", with players casting spells at other players, who in turn might deflect them back at the originator, or even other players...all while doing your worker placement actions as well.

A little closer view
As expected, the questions about rules came fast and furious...some I was prepared to answer, others not so much.  By the end of the game, I'd taken a page and a half of notes - and jotted down a bunch more on the trip home on Sunday.  I learned the importance of not having vague wording on my cards.  I got a lot of good feedback, and some interesting suggestions for rules changes.  I have a lot of ideas on how to fix some things...and some of those ideas conflict with each other...  I'm planning on getting in more playtesting prior to Unpub...but I'm at least comfortable that I have something that I won't embarrass myself with there.  Will this eventually catch a publishers eye?  I don't know...but I'm excited to finally be doing something with my idea, and I look forward to seeing what will happen!

Friday, November 1, 2013


Well, this past Tuesday night, we had the chance to break out Firefly again.  This was my third Firefly experience, after my first game (detailed here) and a two player affair that my friend Tom and tried out one night.  The first game was the very first for all the players, and the 2-player game was started at 10:00 at night after a long day of college football, while camped in front of the TV, so I'm not so sure that was a fair shake.  I was eager to try it again, after getting some experience, and with another larger group.  In fact 3 of the 4 of us were the same players as from that first play, and everyone had had the chance to get a few plays under their belt.  Our 4th player was Brian, who was a rookie, but had been eager to try the game.

We hemmed an hawed a little about which scenario to play, but finally settled on "The King of All Londinium", which is the suggested starting scenario - but has also been roundly criticized for taking MUCH longer than the estimated 2 hours.  (Note - Gale Force Nine has released a new "beginners story" on their website - "First Time in the Captain's Chair")  The thing about "The King of All Londinium" (and the reason that it takes so long) is that it forces you to try and get the full experience of Firefly, as you have to not only earn money, but get a crew that is proficient at all the skill sets in order to succeed. 

It's actually the first goal in "The King of All Londinium" that seems to take the longest time, as you not only need to build a decent crew (in particular, with the negotiation skill), but in the first goal, you need to have at least $7000 in order to succeed (you can chance it with $5000).  It takes some time to build up that kind of cash, as your crew takes their cut for each successful job.  Note that we all still played a bit conservatively, as no one was risking a disgruntled crew by not paying them.

Without giving a detailed overview of our actual game, I'll just cut to the chase and report that Brian won, beating me by one turn in completing the 3rd goal.  Remember, Brian was the only player with absolutely no experience with the game.  Randy finished 3rd, having completed the 1st goal a few turns prior the end, and Carson never completed that first goal.  It took us about 3 hours.  Which wasn't bad considering, the first time around, we called it at 3.5 hours, and only one person had completed the first goal.

What I really wanted to talk about is my impression of the game after 3 plays now.  I love the Firefly universe as much as the next geek.  I want to love this board game.  But I don't.  I like it - quite a bit.  But I don't love it - I don't think it's worthy of the hype it's been getting - although I feel like there are some more criticisms creeping out there.  So, what are the issues for me?  The biggest one is player interaction - there is very little.  Yes, you can potentially send the Alliance or Reavers after other players, but you need to be a little lucky to do that - that typically only happens when someone is moving through space and flips a card that allows the player next to them to move the Alliance/Reavers.  And then the moving person already has to be only one space away for anything to happen.  For other interaction - you can potentially trade with someone in the same space, or steal their disgruntled crews.  We never had that happen - disgruntled crew was rare, and besides everyone was just trying to complete their jobs rather than spy out what was happening on other players ships.  Brian said it best after the game - "I had little idea what anyone else was doing during the game." I almost wish - and I've had vague notions of trying to home-rule something like this - that multiple ships could be working the same job, and there was some kind of race to see who completed it first.  However, I would also want some way to try and hinder the the other players trying to work the same job as you - perhaps some way to force a misbehaving card on them?  Hmm...

Then there's the luck factor.  This turns up mostly during the travel, as you flip the Alliance and Reaver decks.  Poor Carson in our game got hammered by this - having the Reavers pop into his space on several occasions.  I probably would have won the game if Zoe hadn't been snatched from my crew by the Alliance, forcing me to find a replacement for her.  In fact, we had a run of bad luck where it seemed the Alliance was finding anyone with a warrant.  Randy must have tried for 4 turns to complete that first goal before he was able to, just due to the cards that popped up - the misbehave cards can be easy or difficult, and there's no good way to build your crew to handle them - they could require any of the skills.

One other issue I wanted to mention is that if you get behind in this game - there seems to be little chance to catch up.  Brian and I were fortunate enough to complete the first goal at relatively the same time.  Carson and Randy were not able to do so, and it quickly became apparent that they wouldn't catch us.  Since this game tends to run long, that can be an issue for players if they know they're out of it, and there's still 2 hours of game to go.  Perhaps that's mainly a problem with the Londinium story, though - as I mentioned, I think the first goal is the hardest.  Once you get past that, it's relatively straight forward to try and optimize your crew skills for the 2nd and 3rd goals.

Ok...all that said...I still like the game, and I'd be happy to play it again.  Another quote from Brian - "I was never bored".  It's just that it's almost like 4 players playing solo games on the same board.  Another quote, from my buddy Paul O. - I don't remember if he said this when I was describing Firefly, or we were talking about another game - he talked about it sounding like an "experience game".  I think that's dead on here.  You play the game to have the experience of "living" in the Firefly universe for a little while.  To that end, I think a little role playing may help out - really read the flavor text on the various cards, don't just look for the skill check numbers and roll the dice.

Well, that's it for now...despite my misgivings, I'm sure I'll shell out the money for the expansion cards that are due in a month or so.  Until then, keep flying....