Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Power Grid problem.

Since I first played it maybe 7 or 8 years ago, Power Grid has been one of my favorite games.  I have all the expansion maps, the alternate power plant deck, and even the new deluxe version. We played just this past Tuesday at our weekly game night - this time using the India map, the first time I've played on that map.  It was a nice tight 4 player game...however the fashion in which it ended is something I've seen on multiple occasions, and it leads me to wonder if Power Grid is ultimately a flawed game. 

Here was the situation - my friend Brian and I were each at a power plan capacity of 14 cities.  He had built up to 14, I had previously built up to 15.  The other 2 players were behind us at 12ish cities.  We had recently turned to Step 3, so all 6 plants in the market were available.  The other 2 players had already purchased plants, so it was down to Brian and I, and since he was one city behind me, I had to nominate first.  The 36 plant came up (3 coal to power 7 houses).  This would push both Brian and to 18 capacity.  We basically knew that whoever got the plant stood a good chance of winning?  We bid it up to 73 euros, at which point Brian relented, and I won the plant.  We promptly flipped up the 38 plant, which takes 3 garbage to power 7 cities.  Brian, of course, was able to buy it for face value, and have enough cash to actually build up to 18 cities, while I only had enough cash to build to 17.

I have seen this on several occasions, where there's a tight bidding war...and the "loser" really ends up winning by getting a lucky draw on the replacement plant.  Now, perhaps in our situation, "better" players would have remembered all the plants that had been previously placed under the Step 3 card, and knew there was a decent chance to flip up another 7 plant.  (We looked at the remaining cards...there was less than a 50% chance - counting the plant Brian got, there was 2 "7" plants out of the remaining 6 or 7 cards (I don't remember the exact count).  So, he did get a bit lucky.  It should be noted, that most of the remaining plants were "6" values, so he likely could have won anyway, since that would have put him at a capacity of 17 vice my 18, but I couldn't build the 18th he would likely have won on tie-breaker with more cash.

Of course, I have seen the opposite, where someone gives up on a bid, and then a terrible plant is flipped, and the loser is set back to the point where he can't get back into the game.  In fact, when I really think about it, I think someone gets screwed one or the other by the plant flip in every game.  Perhaps with the exception of the China map, where they come out in numerical order.

Folks who have the entire deck memorized have and advantage, I think (especially on the China map).  I don't like that, primarily because I'll likely never have the deck memorized, but perhaps that sour grapes on my part.  So, I this a flaw in the game, or should you account for this in your strategy somehow?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Designing My First Game - Part 5

Well, I fear that I will never be a prolific blog author.  I was a little shocked to see that my last post was in February.  Here we are in April already - how does that happen?!?!  With this post, I want to finish up my series on how it's been so far as a first time designer.  Well, "finish up" is maybe not exactly correct, since I'm not done with Santa's Workshop, but I want to at least bring things up to where they currently stand.  Since my last blog entry, I want to cover the two further events where I tested Santa's Workshop, and the highs and lows that came with that. 

The first event - and the biggie - was Unpub 5.  Wow, do things first Unpub was last earlier series of blog posts.  This year, Unpub moved from the sleepy countryside of Delaware to the Baltimore Convention Center - and it's not hyperbole to say it was an incredible success.  Many other people have covered it already, and I'll point you to the fantastic video that  was made about the event.  By way of comparison - at Unpub 4, I had a grand total of 4 plays of Santa's Workshop.  At Unpub 5, I had 9 plays.  Or was it 10?  I lost track!  On Saturday, especially, it was nonstop - in fact, I had to turn people away that evening, just because I had no voice, and I needed to actually eat something!  That's a good problem to have!
year, at Unpub 4, which I covered in an

Prepping the goodie bags
But what about Santa's Workshop?  The first playtest was on Friday night, with my good friend Paul Owen, and Peter Gousis from MVP Games.  There was another fellow that joined us, and once again I am remiss that I did not write down names (it also doesn't help that I'm writing this 2 months after the fact).  We played in between some of the guest lectures that were held on Friday (Friday was designers-only, and not open to the general public).  Everyone at the table seemed to really enjoy the game, and I got some great feedback, especially about cleaning up some unneeded fiddliness - the markers I was using to track who delivered coal, and who fed reindeer were taken out - and the scoring for coal and reindeer was adjusted to account for removing those markers.  Essentially, I got rid of bonuses for the most coal and reindeer on every 4th day, and just worked those bonuses into the immediate scoring for those areas.

Saturday, as I mentioned above was crazy.  It was wall to wall people, and I was demoing Santa's Workshop non-stop.  I was blown away - I got nothing by positive feedback from all the playtesters.  There was little to no push back on any of the mechanics.  Game length at most was about 1:15 - 1:20, and I reasoned that the same players, if they immediately played again, would probably be close to an hour, which is where I would like the game to be.

Playtesting Santa's Workshop
However, there was a little dose of reality.  One of the Guests of Honor of the convention was Richard Launius designer of Arkham Horror, among many other games.  He stopped by my table while a group was playing, and watched for 5 or 10 minutes - and then was kind enough to talk to me about the game for another 10 or 15 minutes.  To paraphrase, he basically told me that as far as he could tell, the mechanics of the game looked good, there definitely appeared to be a solid game there...but he did not think it would ever sell due to the theme.  He thought at best, a small publisher might take a chance, sell maybe a few hundred, and then it would done. 

This, of course, is not exactly what I wanted to hear, and was reminiscent of what I heard from Game Salute at Unpub 4.  But, Richard told me - and reiterated in a later conversation - that he thought it looked like a solid game, and he thought re-theming it would make it much more approachable for publishers.

On Sunday, I had a chance to demo the game for a publisher.  I had reached out to this publisher prior to the con, as their website indicated that they were looking for non-violent, family friendly games that would also appeal to gamers.  This is exactly how I was trying to design Santa's Workshop.  For the demo, I enlisted Anna Rutledge to play as well, as she had played at Unpub 4, and I was eager to get her feedback on how she liked the changes. 

The demo went very well, I thought, and the publisher gave me great feedback.  First - he said that he really enjoyed the game - which is nice to hear!  However, he thought that it was maybe a bit complicated for the intended market (i.e. families).  In my opinion, the game is on the light end of euro-style worker placements, but as a gamer, I tend to forget that even games I consider "light" are still much more complex than games that non-gamers are used to.  He opined that this is a common issue for first time game designers, but he also thought that some of the mechanics, like the plastic and the training room added some depth that is not often seen in first time designs.  He also game me some recommendations on how he thought I could simplify the game.  So, even though he didn't offer me a contract on the spot, it was still a positive experience, and I much appreciated his insight. 

So, overall, Unpub 5 was a great success, with very positive feedback, mixed with a sobering reminder that the theme may be an issue.  However, you may recall from previous posts, that another "industry insider" - Geoff Englestein - opined that he thought there would be a market for the game.  So, still no clear path forward for me...but I had one more event before I really wanted to make the hard decisions.

That event was my annual trip to Prezcon.  Now, I got to Prezcon to play games, not necessarily playtest, but I was hoping to get in a test or two.  Specifically, I had pre-arranged to demo to another publisher, and other game industry folks - they had specifically told me at Unpub that they wanted to try the game.  So, the first bad news came when they had to cancel their trip, due to some bad weather and other deadlines they had.  That was no fault on them, but I was still a little bummed about that.  However, I did get a chance to get one playtest in, with some folks that have become part of our regular gaming crowd.  The Senzig family - 3 generations of them - showed up again, and they all played with my friend Brian, and also Mike Crescenzi, who'd I met last year with his brother Mark.

Now, Unpub was great - but I don't know how many of the people that played were really gamers.  Among the Senzigs, Mike Sr. has been playing Acquire since it was published, Mike Jr. has won a few plaques, and even teenage Luke has gone toe to toe with the likes of Bill Crenshaw in Agricola.  Mike Crescenzi won Lords of Waterdeep last year, and in the few games I've played with him...I've seen enough to know that he knows games.  In short, these guys are all really good gamers.  So, I thought I would get great feedback.

Unfortunately - everything that went so good at Unpub...seemed to go bad here.  The game took 2+ hours.  Mike C. used a plastic strategy to win by 100+ points.  Some of the random event cards had really negative effects that caused more havoc than my intention.  Now...I did get good feedback.  Mike Jr. gave me some specific feedback on a few things he would change.  But I wasn't sure what to take away from that playtest - was the game broken due to the runaway leader?  It's hard to say - everyone was tired, there was a lot of distractions, no one was trying to stop the plastic strategy.  But that uncertainty - is the game broken, or was this an anomalous game - is very frustrating.

Did they break Santa's Workshop???
So, I came away from Prezcon with almost the opposite feelings I had after Unpub - a lot of uncertainty and doubt.  It also didn't help that I had another very quick conversation with a publisher who had previously reviewed the rules - and he again brought up the theme issue.

I had wanted to come away from Prezcon with enough data to make a decision on where to take the game.  But I came away with enough uncertainty and doubt, that I've just ended up putting the game on the shelf and not thinking about it for the last 6 weeks.  I had very seriously thought about taking it to Origins this year and trying to show it to publishers.  But since that's about 2 months away, that's looking unlikely. 

Lastly, I'll mention that while I've had a few other ideas for games, I've not yet had a vision that was as clear to me as the first time I thought about Santa's Workshop.  So, as an aspiring game designer, that's been frustrating.  They say that if you're a writer, you need to write...and I know that's the same for game design - I just need to sit down and work on things.  But that's easier said than done. 

So, that's where I'm at now.  I will update when I can.  There may be an Unpub Mini happening in May that I'll take the game to, we'll see.  I don't typically get a lot of comments on my blog (not blogging regularly doesn't lead to regular commenters) - but any ideas are welcome!  Thanks for reading.