Sunday, February 22, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 4

Alright, when I left off I had gone through the spring and summer making tweaks based on feedback at Unpub 4, and at our Mini-Unpub.  The fall brought two more events for me to showcase the game.  First was the "World Boardgaming Championships" (WBC) - which I've been attending the last several years.  In actuality, I hadn't really intended to promote Santa's Workshop here - but after our Unpub Mini, I was contacted out of the blue by a publisher, inquiring about my publishing plans for SW.

I sent him the information, and as it turns out, we were both planning on being at WBC.  So, I brought the game.  As it turned out, we never got it to the table, and based on the rulebook, the publisher decided it wasn't a good fit for his line.  We did talk about it a bit at WBC, and there was some concern about the theme and how well it would appeal to gamers. 

The next event that I did sign up for, was the Unpub room at Congress of Gamers in October.  I brought the game, and got in 3 or 4 playtests.  I got some great feedback from folks like Alf Shadowsong and TC Petty III.  I incorporated a few more changes, such as giving elves a bonus if they became fully trained - they could use less coal in the material rooms.  On the 2nd day I playtested again with John Moller  his wife Katherine.  They seemed to like the game...but one thing was becoming length was an issue.  An average game was running close to 2 hours...about double what I wanted. 

At this point, I was sort of stuck as to where I wanted to take the game.  I decided to plunk some cash down and bid in the Jack Vassel memorial fund on BoardGameGeek.  For those that don't know - the fund was set up by podcasting guru Tom Vassel, in memory of his late son, Jack.  The fund is used to help gamers that are in some kind of need.  Literally hundreds of games - and other items - are put for auction. did this help me?  I decided to bid on the chance of having Geoff Englestein review my game.  Geoff hosts the "GameTek" segment on the Dice Tower, as well as having his own podcast - Ludology - with Ryan Sturm.  Geoff has also designed several games, inlcuding The Ares Project, Space Cadets and Space Cadets:Dice Duel (along with his children). 

I was lucky enough to win the auction, and was very excited to have Geoff look at the game.  True to his word, Geoff really went back and forth with me on the game, and gave me great advice.  Some major changes that resulted from Geoff's advice were getting rid of dice nearly altogether (the coal mine still uses dice), and changing the reindeer area.  I had heard from other folks that the reindeer track was "boring".  Geoff thought it would be great to see the individual reindeer named - so I did just that.  Now, each of the eight reindeer (yes, only eight - the legal issues of who "owns" Rudolph are a bit cloudy) get a point token at the start of each round (kind of like the buildings in builders hall in Lords of Waterdeep).  When you go to the reindeer stable, you choose which reindeer to feed - and you get the points for that reindeer, plus a bonus - for example, Dasher may give you fabric.  This really made the reindeer stable a much more interesting location.

Geoff helped point out a few other areas he thought were fiddly as well - I got rid of the requirement that on some gifts portions of the materials all had to be made out of either the "prime" material, or plastic.  I also undid a lot of the "extras" that I had added after Congress of Gamers - just too fiddly.  I also finally cut ties with the idea of "spells" altogether - the functions of those were largely taken over by the reindeer bonuses.  For giving coal to naughty kids, I just made that an option in the Assembly Hall.    One thing that Geoff mentioned is that he thought I had an idea that a publisher would be interested in - the mechanics just needed some streamlining.  I think I was able to do a lot of that with Geoff's input.  It took me a while to let go of all those dice - but I think it's a better game for it.  We talked about maybe having one die in the game, and different modifiers depending on which room you were using...but that adds to "cognitive load" - and for a game that I want to be able to pitch towards families...the less of that, the better.

The last thing for this particular blog entry I want to touch on is the problem of game length that I mentioned earlier.  It was becoming apparent that 12 game turns was too long.  I was enamored with keeping the "12 Days of Christmas" theme, but it really seemed that 9 turns was pretty optimal.  I also made other changes, such as giving players in a 4 or 5 player game only 3 elves vice 4.  Little things can build up.  One of the reindeer spots would give the player 2 untrained elves to use later that turn.  In a 9 turn game, that's 18 more worker placements - so I cut that back to 1 "super trained" elf.  As it stands now, the game plays in about an hour - maybe 1:15 for 4+ players - but I'm confident that if those folks played a 2nd time, it would speed up.  I was also able to keep the "12 Days of Christmas" theme by making days 4, 8 and 12 just "Santa's Inspection days" - i.e. not actual rounds where players placed elves (that was another great suggestion from Geoff).

Alright...that brings us almost to the current time...  The next big event was Unpub 5, and I'm going to detail that in a separate blog post.  Apologies for the wall of text in this particular post...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 3

Holy Smokes - the last entry was almost 2 months ago?!?!  Ok, I admit...I'm terrible at this blogging thing.  I had planned this out as a whole series...but I'm way behind - I want to write something about Unpub 5, which is already 2 weeks in the past...and Prezcon starts this, I'm going to try and wrap up all of 2014 in this one post.

When I left off in Part 2, I was getting ready for Unpub 4, which was held in Delaware in January of 2014.  I previously had a 2 part blog on that - Part 1 & Part 2.  The long and short of it was that I got 4 playtests in that weekend, and learned some valuable lessons from my playtesters.  There were some unneeded complications in the game - primarily the players didn't like the "coal cards", in which they could cast spells - or rather, they didn't like the "mean" cards - which you could use to screw up other players.  They didn't really feel that was in the spirit of the theme - and there were some horribly unbalanced cards in there.

More sobering, however, was my 10 minute pitch to Game Salute.  This was something that they were offering every designer there - and though I didn't really feel the game was publisher-ready, I decided to take advantage, to at least get my feet wet talking to a publisher.  I spent about 3 or 4 minutes describing the game...and when I was done, I got compliments on one or two of the mechanics, but the rest of the talk focused on the theme.  They thought that the theme was sort of a Catch-22 - "gamers" would overlook the game, thinking it would be too light, and families would balk at spending a typical eurogame price (~$40), and if they did...they would probably be overwhelmed thinking they were getting a game their 5 year old could play.

So...while I was a bit disappointed in that, I decided that I would stick with the Santa's Workshop theme for at least the rest of the year as I further refined the game.  The first thing I did was take out all the "mean" coal cards.  That left just a deck of "positive cards".  That still seemed to fiddly, so eventually I get rid of the coal cards altogether.  I replaced the cards with a die roll at the coal mine which gave you certain number of coal.  Instead of cards that allowed you to cast spells, I had 6 specific spells that all the elves could cast - adding an extra seat, improving your material rolls, improving your assembly roll, improving your coal roll, adjusting the reindeer track, and allowing you to pick more gifts.  At first I allowed each spell to be cast once per game, but that changed to being able to cast each once per round - if you had the coal to spend on it. 
The players tableau...about Version 9.0 or so....

But how to model turning the coal in for naughty kids?  With the coal cards, you had the choice of using the spell, or turning it in for points.  I went through a number of iterations here.  For a while, you just turned in all of you coal on the inspection rounds.  Then I played with having people sort of "blind bid" with coal on the inspection rounds - whoever turned in the most got a bonus.  Talk about fiddly!  Then I hit upon the idea of having some of the gifts be for naughty kids...and instead of building the gift, you had to place coal on that gift.  I had slots at the bottom of the tableaus, 7 Wonders style for those gifts.  I thought that would be the answer for a long time...ultimately it was not.

In July, we had an "Unpub Mini" at our local game store - the Game Parlor.  I got SW to the table 2 or 3 times and got some more good feedback.  One fellow pointed out that the training, as I had it then, was sort of pointless - it took too long to train in materials for it to be worth much.  In other words, the turns wasted going to the training room, would be better spent just collecting the material.  So, I came out of that, having to adjust the training levels.  I also found that people hated the "0" spot on all the material dice.  They did not want to waste one of their precious actions on the chance of a 0 roll.

Santa's Workshop at the "Unpub Mini"
A couple of problems kept plaguing me.  I never felt I was able to get the "tension" right in the game.  As a worker placement game, there has to be some tough choices to be made in where you take your action each turn.  My problem was - it was either too light on tension...or too high - just by taking away or adding an additional space, really swung the tension levels.  I couldn't find a middle ground.

The other problem was with the gift scoring.  In the basic calculations of the gifts scores, fabric was worth 2, wood 3 and metal 4.  But this wasn't working balance-wise.  I eventually upped metal to 6 points, and adjusted the metal die accordingly - so all the dice would average about 3.5 points worth of material per roll.  And, as a side note - with 5 custom dice in the game (fabric, wood, metal, assembly, coal) - I found that people kept having a hard time finding the right die when they needed it.

So, I made a couple of drastic changes (or so I thought).  To fix the "tension" problem, I tried a few things.  At one point, I tried a "Power Grid" style mechanic of filling each room only so much per turn - so players would have to fight over the resources.  That was short lived.  I finally hit upon the idea of having coal also be used as "currency" in the materials rooms - the elves had to fire the furnace to power the tools.  In each room, I had different spots that cost different amounts of coal - but the more coal you spent, the more material you would typically get.  Part of this change, was making fabric, wood and coal all equivalent points-wise.  This meant I had to rework all the gifts and point structure.  That was a bit of work, but I think it was worth it.  This also meant that I reduced 3 dice to 1 - just a "material die". 

Ok...on second thought I'm going to end this blog entry here to avoid it rambling on for too long...  I will attempt to follow with Part 4 tomorrow.  My apologies for the lack of pictures, and not proofreading it too well...