Cram @ Gen Con: Takeaways Between One Year

 

Hi!

Phil, Cindy, and I are still here, I promise you. We’ve been working on the game as best we can. What really helped us came from Phil’s two trips to the table-top gaming con Mecca known as Gen Con. And they have been very important trips to the game’s development.

Truth Bombs at Gen Con 2015

When Phil took the game to Gen Con 2015, it was very different.  The 2015 version of the game had Influence cards, which players could use to draw cards, gain points, etc.  At that point, Phil considered the game completed. There was some complexity to it, but it had solid mechanics that let you do interesting things once you figured it out.

He presented the game to some designers at the Game Crafter Community Game Night (they’re the ones that print our game). It was there where fellow designer Andrew Voigt – designer of Perspective – delivered the strongest criticism about the game it had ever received.

“If I went over to a friends house and they asked me to play this game, and after we were done they asked “do you want to play again?”, I would say “no thank you”.

Phil said it hit him so hard that he still remembers it.

 Andrew explained it further.There was too much decision space in the game. All the choices and different directions that find the best way to win were mentally draining. The game was overloaded with effects, most of it coming from the Influence cards.

 Scrapping, Stripping, and Simplifying

After the criticism, the options were to either accept the game as is or do some major fixing. That very night at the hotel Phil started working (with Emma‘s help) on making the game a simpler one. The focus was finding what were the key interactions of the game – and cutting out the ones that weren’t.

After feedback with the different Gen Con crowd, this was how the game changed:

  • We cut Influence and Cultures as cards from the game.We are now using the word “Influence” to mean victory point. Cultures are now just a flavorful aesthetic for your cult.
  • Shrines are now part of a player’s starting setup and are the focal points for interactions.
  • Followers are now the main currency of the game. You work to attract and use them to “power” your actions.
  • Relics are the only way you can score points now, so you need to interact with them to win.  They are now center stage in terms of the game theme as well.

The game now now has a much more simple core gameplay loop Now that the heart of the game centers on three types of cards instead of five, it’s more accessible.

What Happened One Year Later?

This year at Gen Con 2016 Phil had playtests with this leaner version of our game, and the reports are that it went well. Two of the groups managed to get through two full games. One three-player group got it done under 30 minutes, which is awesome.
There was still room for improvement, of course. Here’s a few of the major points of feedback that Phil collected:
  • There is some confusion and/or loopholes on some of the cards. They aren’t major but they need to be fixed for clarity and to plug any exploits.
  • We’ve still had issues with a tiebreaker option. Phil asked the groups that played for good ideas on a tiebreaker, and he thinks he has figured it out.
  • One game had a problem where a player was essentially eliminated from play because they did not attract enough followers. This might turn off new players, so Phil has a potential fix for that as well.
  • Everyone loves the art and the flavor.
  • The game description was appealing and drew people to come play it.

The most important aspect of this feedback is that it’s coming from regular players. The help of other designers has been essential to getting the game this far. However, game designers are always looking to give you feedback and they aren’t always interested in the kind of game you’re making. This event was nice because the people who played chose to play it. In the end, you can’t beat the satisfaction of watching people enjoy your game and have fun.

Mechanics Update!

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of these. The game has gone through some dramatic changes over the past few months. I took a look through some of the past posts to get a sense of where the game was when last we spoke. I was amused to find how many of the innovations we’ve had over the course of development have also been discarded for something better. We’ve really come a long way with this game and we have learned a lot. So let’s talk a bit about what we have learned this time around.

Back around October of last year the game was feeling bloated and overly complex. We fell into this trap of adding a new mechanic every time we discovered a new problem. Games would drag on and turns were way too long. Playtesters would often give the suggestion of limiting the number of things that could be done during a turn. I had overlooked this feedback for a long time, since it would be a major change and I had no idea how to implement it without breaking the game. I eventually became so dissatisfied with where the game was at that I took the game back to a more early stage prototype using index cards. From there it was easier to try out some of these suggestions and build the game back up. We boiled the game down to the core fun mechanics and took the knife to anything superfluous. Let’s talk about what’s changed.

One of the main goals was to speed up turns so that all players would remain engaged throughout the game. The plan was to do this through some sort of limit on actions per turn. However, I didn’t want to simply dole out action points. I wanted this limitation to feel more natural and be part of the mechanics of the game. Our solution was to simplify the relative value of Influence cards, so that the number of cards in your hand represented the number of actions you could take. All actions now cost 1 Influence to perform. Alternatively, you can discard an Influence card to perform the action written on the card. During your turn, actions you take will sometimes reward you with Influence that can be spent next turn, up to a maximum of 5. This creates a soft limit of 5 actions per turn, but is based on what the player does during the game. I find this system much more natural and easier to explain.

Another goal was to make the game simpler to explain. I wanted to reduce the amount of effort a player would have to take in order for the rules to click with them. With that goal in mind, we removed the capacity mechanic from Shrines. Instead of requiring a certain number of Followers before the Shrine would activate, Shrine effects are now triggered based on player actions. For instance, a Shrine may now do something when a Follower enters it or provide some passive benefit to the player as long as there are 2 Followers in it. Doing it this way allows the card to completely explain how it functions and reduces the reliance on the rulebook to explain how cards interact with each other. It has the added benefit of simplifying the visual design of the card, while allowing more interesting mechanics.

We had another win for simplicity by eliminating the concept of Missionaries. Followers had this dual state system where they started as Followers and became Missionaries. As Missionaries, they remained as part of your tableau and provided you benefits. We liked the idea thematically, but we always found it challenging to get people to understand how the mechanic worked. Now Followers are simply able to be sent on a mission. Doing so costs 1 Influence and requires you to discard the Follower. The Follower card describes the benefit you receive when you send them on a mission.

Something I think our game has been historically bad at has been respecting the amount of space the game requires to play and how complex it is to set up. A more complicated initial setup often means an equally complicated storage system, both of which just create barriers. How much more likely is it that someone will play your game if it only takes 1 minute to set up and play? With this question in mind we merged all the core cards into 2 decks – one deck for Influence, and one for Followers, Relics, and Shrines. This greatly simplified the play space and setup. There are some downsides to doing this, such as making draws less predictable. We combated this by adding some cards that enabled players to manage the card pool and find the cards they needed. Ultimately though, our thinking came down to the type of game we are trying to make. Are we OK with the game being less about predictability and fairness for the sake of simplicity? I think a lot of the mistakes we have made over the course of development have been a result of too great a focus on fairness and not enough focus on fun. The recent changes have been a big course correction in that regard.

So where does that leave us? The game rules are quicker to explain. It’s easier to setup and takes less time to play. There are less components and there have been lots of quality of life improvements for the player across the board. Those all feel like huge wins to me. Also, have you seen the art lately? It looks amazing!

eternal_flame

Revamped Designs Means Revamped Cards!

We’ve been working on major changes to the game in the months since our last post. Phil made great strides on the mechanics from playtests. His updates meant there was a need for new changes in the card design, and Cindy delivered. Here is a preview of the new deck design.

RevampCard1

The most important changes come from Phil’s removal of a lot of components from the previous prototype. There were a lot of things on the left sidebar that are gone now, and as Cindy said, ” less complexity is always a good thing.”

The deck is neatly divided by the colors of the back of the cards. The backgrounds and back of cards all have a weathered aesthetic to fit the theme and Cindy’s art.

RevampCard2

Here is the before and after of one of the Influence Cards, Revisionism. You can see the changes in font, icons, background color, and size of the text boxes. The overall dark tone of the new card helps push the dirty look we are looking for. It works great with the Follower and Shrine cards.

While they’re not include in these photos, I had some updates of my own. Since the design changes also affected the Culture cards, I made sure that those made sense thematically. Those were rewritten as well. Stadium, one of the Shrines, also needed a flavor text change since Phil made extensive switches on it. I also fixed the title of a Relic that’s been bothering me since I got on this project.

There’s the matter of one more major change left. The three of us would like to change the name of the game – the more we’ve pitched the game to others the more we’ve come to the conclusion there’s a better name we can use. When the time comes, we will release that as well. Hope you enjoyed the update!

The Three Prophets

At first dawn I see the Prophet call for new followers

Bellow the simple prophecy and a complex truth

That convinced builders and strong warriors,

That guarded the construction of a holy booth

Where more can sit, and soak in the words

And gaze at the mantle and the wonder

 

At second dawn, the Usurper comes, abstract

In the teachings that attracts iconoclasts

Hungry for new excuses of relic blasts

And orators, their false words backed

With glorious purpose that move the herds

To spread their faith with great ardor

 

At third dawn, appeared a sacred Diviner

Spouting what he found in texts olden

That attracted scholars, always beholden

To the sacred words of past reminders

Of the World Before – the prophet’s records

Grows, but will it one day be put asunder?

Playtest Story – The Bloom of the Beasts

It’s the way of the fool  to marginalize any living thing. Even the smallest, most chaotic ones can surprise you with their victory.

The legend said that there was a certain breed of survivors of the Darkness that did not hide from the terror of that time. In fact, they fed from it until their bodies were strong enough to set out and claim what was left of the world. They were small bands living from meager supplies, with stories told of mythic fire-weapons from the world before. To their disappointment they could find no traces of any in their hunts. They decided then that it was time to make their own weapons from what was left with no regard to the quality of the construction. Those that did find strong materials made deadly arms, such as the Red Crescent – a giant, oddly angled disc cut into the shape of the first sign of the moon.

One of the most dangerous threats to the Beasts was a time called the Prophets’ Culling. Many so-called seers of the future proclaimed of some good, but mostly horrible tidings. As a consequence, fear invaded the minds and hearts of the people. The Beasts became the scapegoats for the doom that fell out of the prophets’ mouths.

The iconoclasts from the Hammers of Light, in their mission to break down anything from the blighted past,  smashed icons considered holy to the Beasts. The Water Runners casted out the rugged warriors into the raging seas when they encountered them on the coastline. The Beasts, however, were born from the calamity of an apocalypse – these new attacks were merely a scratch. Their numbers never faltered, and even in the most trying of moments found manners of survival.

In retaliation, the tribes of the Beasts joined together, and their sole prophet made a declaration:

The moon will bring us her strength in the form of a red bloom. We will harvest it, and from it will come the weapons of victory.

At first, many scoffed at the threat, but as the revolutions of the sun progressed and people became more complacent, the Beasts gathered their small army, each holding Red Crescents, and attacked. Shrines were cut down like chaff in wheat fields, icons were turned against their owners, and the Beasts bestowed on their opponents the mercy they had inflicted onto them. The Prophets’ Culling turned into the Bloom of the Beast. The Beasts made semi-permanent camps after that, knowing full well no one would have the nerve to attack them, and  even to this day when one sees the moon turn red, they look off to the horizon hoping that they do not see the crescents coming their way.

New and Improved Color Palette!

You know those things that, once they occur to you, seem glaringly obvious? The issue with the color palette I’ve been using for the design of the Cultus cards is one of those things. The problem is, I fell in love with a palette. It was bright, pretty, cheerful and modern. It looked great on the geometric forms in the game. The glaring problem with this is, of course, that the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is neither bright, cheery nor modern. Duh.

So the card icons got a makeover! I figured it’s the least they deserve, after such a long hectic weekend at Boston FIG. You’ve got to treat yourself!

color_palette_preview

A liiiiittle bit of texture was also added to all the outlines so they wouldn’t look so straight and perfect. A little hard to detect on such a small size, but I think it’s enough to give it some oomph.

Now time for a relic makeover!

Spreading the Cult at Boston FIG

Phil and I brought the cult with us to the Boston Festival of Indie Games on Saturday. There were 18 exhibitors and a few sponsors showing games at the tabletop showcase. The hall was packed within the moment attendees started coming in, and our table was constantly filled with players wanting to take a shot at creating the largest cult.

Phil and I used this as our pitch:

The theme of the game is that in the far future, the current human society has completely lost track of our society having ever existed. However, they begin to unearth artifacts from our time. Not knowing what these objects are, they proscribe their own meaning to them and ultimately start forming cults around them. Each player is a cult leader, vying to create the most powerful cult.

We must have said our sales pitch more than….what, 50-plus times? It became just another reflex after a while. People liked the theme – they were saying things like “Yeah, in a post-apocalypse I’d start a cult too.”

We had a good variety of people sitting down and playing the game. There were MIT college kids, couples, kids and adults, and more. Our first 4-person game brought in really interested people who got the hang of the game quickly.  One player pulled off a good Revisionism/Overwork combo on Scholar follower cards. What was really interesting was the trend of women playing very aggressive games. They smashed other player’s credibility and stole followers as if they were on a crusade.The really inspiring thing was when a pair of attendees coming back for a second play-through, bringing more friends to play with them.  It was awesome to see the two explain the mechanics of the game without our help.

Cindy got a lot of praise for her work on the relics. She and I designed three flyers – one for the Enduring Confection, Second Skull, and Elixir – that had a snake-oil salesman vibe to it. Attendees were definitely feeling Skull and Confection. Check them out here:

key_to_cityThe tongue-in-cheek take on the Key to the City relic made a lot of people laugh. I’m so glad that the idea of relics went well with those who checked out the game. Boston FIG was an amazing way of putting our game through the gamer’s gauntlet, and while Phil and I came out of that day wiped out, the feeling that the game is working made up for all of it.