This Is Just A Tribute

At a recent playtesting meetup, I was able to sit out and observe people play our game. I highly recommend that designers do this, because it allows you to really pay attention to people’s body language during the experience. It was plainly obvious that players were becoming bored waiting for their turn to come around. And as the designer, that’s really hard to watch.

So, despite our efforts to speed the game up, we still had a serious problem with turn length. Thankfully the playtesters and fellow designers that go to the meetup gave great feedback. Based on their advice we’ve made a change that has had an extremely positive impact on the game.

The core of the problem was the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, primarily in the form of drawing cards. Every time a player drew a new card, they had to read the card and re-optimize their strategy for the turn. This could slow down the game to a crawl. And since they could use the cards to continue a combo, it compounded the problem.

One thing we could do is simply take away card draw, except for at the end of your turn. Since the cards are also your currency, I felt this change would make the game too watered down and boring. Another option would be to take away card draw, but to allow the players to gain temporary currency during their turn that they could use to pay costs. However, we didn’t want to add any additional materials for players to track that with.

With those things in mind, we came up with the new Tribute mechanic. Now whenever a player would have drawn a card during their turn, they instead collect a Tribute. They do this by drawing an Influence card and keeping it face down in front of them. Players can use Tribute to cover any costs during their turn. If they have any Tribute left over at the end of their turn, they draw it into their hand.

This solution retains all the fun combo mechanics, eliminates the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, and doesn’t introduce any new materials or cards. So far, the playtests I’ve done with this new mechanic (including one online using Roll20) have gone extremely well. The turns were going much faster and the players, including myself, were having much more fun.

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Gaining Credibility

I’ve been taking the game to a few game designer playtesting meetups. It’s been like walking into a hidden world full of creative and passionate people. Setting our game in front of people who have actually published games is honestly fairly intimidating. There was no need for that though. Everyone I’ve meet has been welcoming, helpful, and honest with their feedback.

I’ve got loads of notes and its going to be quite a challenge to figure out how to solve the problems the playtesters have raised. I’m not going to get into every point in this post, but I did want to talk about a recent addition that came about as a result of some of this feedback. I made a small mention of it in our last post, but now I’m going to tell you how we incorporated the change.

In the game, players draw their hand at the end of their turn. We did this because we felt that it gave players time to formulate a strategy for their next turn, thus speeding up the game. A consequence of this was that discarding was very frustrating, with the worst case being that you could lose all your cards an have nothing to do during your next turn.

We decided to essentially eliminating discard and replacing it with the “discredit” mechanic. Basically players would have a new value to maintain called Credibility, which could be anywhere from 0 to 5. Each Credibility you had at the end of the game would increase your Power (victory points) by 1. Effects could lower or raise a players Credibility and players could also raise their Credibility during their turn by paying Influence. We created new cards that would punish players for having a low Credibility, which would encourage players to spend Influence to keep it up.

The end result is a delayed discard mechanic. You can lower a players Credibility, which they will need to raise later by spending Influence (discarding cards). The main difference is that the player gets to decide when to lose the cards.

I’ve tested the game a few times now with this new mechanics, and so far so good. It seems to handle the problem it was meant to solve and the players seem to actually enjoy it. I also think that its a huge thematic improvement. It’s doing things for us that we had been trying to capture from the start.

Now that’s all well and good, but there’s one more thing we needed to deal with in order to meet our design goals. We had to figure out a way to keep track of Credibility without introducing any outside tokens or trackers. To do this we took a note from the game Bang! and put a value tracker on the backs of Culture cards. Below is a crude representation to give you an idea of what I mean.

Back of Culture

Back of Culture

A player can use their actual Culture card and place if partially covering the back of an unused Culture card. By sliding their Culture card up and down, they can indicate what their current Credibility is. We also put the starting Storage and Renown at the top, so that players won’t have to worry about remembering that.

I’m really happy with how this change is working out so far. I’m looking forward to bringing a better game to the next playtesting meetup.

Playtest Meetup

Born from a desire to get some more playtesters for the game and to network with other game designers, I started a Meetup group: http://www.meetup.com/NYC-Tabletop-Game-Designers/. The idea is that designers can bring their prototypes, help test other people’s games, and get theirs tested as well. And even if you aren’t working on anything currently, you can still go to meet other designers and maybe get inspired.

Prototypes

Prototypes

We had our first session on Tuesday (2/19/13). There were 4 prototypes to test, including our own, in various states of polish. The 2 games that I played were really fun and I’m looking forward to playing the other. The people that came were great, too. There was a lot of great feedback and ideas flying around.

Jesus running our game.

Jesus running our game.

Jesus ran our game and said that it was well received. The players seemed engaged and caught on quickly. They also gave us some really great feedback.

We’ve always struggled to keep the game going at a good pace and keeping turn length down. There have been some mechanics changes to help with that, such as having players draw their cards at the end of their turn. Our playtesters suggested that we could use the card aesthetics to help speed up the player’s analysis of the cards. As a result of that feedback, we are going to try putting icons on the Influence cards to indicate what “category” the card is in. Example categories could be attack, defense, or economy. This will help players quickly understand the purpose of a card and if they want to use it during their next turn.

The playtesters also suggested that the discard mechanic was counterproductive to keeping turns quick. Players may have spent time figuring out how their turn was going to go, but when they are forced to discard they will likely need to re-plan. On top of being frustrating, this ends up slowing down the game. We could also get into the even worse situation, were as a result of having to discard, a player has no options during their turn. Our playtesters suggested a possible solution to help deal with this problem. Instead of having a player discard a card, they receive a mark. This mark indicates that they will draw less cards at the end of their next turn, rather than discard immediately. The benefit here is that the victim is not forced to re-plan. The mark also sets expectations. Rather than planning a huge turn only to have it shut down before they could do anything, the player has fair warning about how their next turn is going to go.

Overall I thought the meetup was very valuable and fun. I’m really grateful for the amazing feedback we received. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one.

Prophecy Fulfilled

We said farewell to Cindy and Will a few days ago. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we were able to get in 2 solid 4-player games before their departure.

Cutting out the prototype

Cutting out the prototype

I had printed out a version of the prototype with the Prophecy changes shortly before Xmas. I tried it out over the holiday and quickly discovered that the Prophecies were coming up too frequently and the reward for playing them was too great. At the time, a player was given 2 Power (2 points toward their final score) and 1 Renown (draw an additional Influence card at the end of their turn) for playing a Prophecy. With the reward being so good, it became the focal of the game, which was not the intent.

So before our farewell playtests, I made some quick changes to reduce the number of Prophecies in the Influence deck and changed the reward for playing a Prophecy to just 1 Renown. I decided to keep the Renown, because I wanted to encourage players to play Prophecies early in the game. I feel that if I had chosen to keep the Power instead, then the player would probably chose not to play them and thus drag out the game. Power has no benefit until the end of the game, so playing a card that only rewards Power merely slows down a player’s early game.

The game in full swing

The game in full swing

During the playtests, I was really starting to feel things click. I dare say that I was even having fun. That’s a refreshing feeling after having spent so much time analyzing and tweaking. The Prophecy cards were definitely an improvement over the rounds based system that we had before. This was also the first time that we tried randomizing which Shrines and Followers would be available for purchase. This went as well as we could have hoped. The first and second games that we played were very different in terms of the strategies we were using. Everyone seemed to enjoy discovering what they could do with these new options and combinations. The randomizer is definitely going to pay off in terms of replay value.

I’d say the biggest challenge we are facing now is creating a satisfying ramp up. During the games, it was taking too long to get the engine moving. The first few turns felt really slow, because you couldn’t really buy much yet. And just when your strategy was just starting to kick in, the game would end.

Fixing this is going to come down to tweaking what the game is charging to complete an action. I plan to start with a dramatic reduction of costs across the board, which will likely swing the game to the other extreme. After I get a glimpse of what the game feels like with a speedy ramp up, I can start doing more careful nudging of individual cards.

It’s going to take some time, but we’ll eventually get the game to follow a satisfying progression.

Playtest + Farewell

Cindy1Well, it’s a bit of a sad day for us. Cindy, along with her wonderful boyfriend Will, are moving to the Bay Area. She is still working on the project, of course, so there’s no need to worry about that.we did have one last playtest tonight in a restaurant around Union Square. I’ll let Phil talk a bit more about the new changes in another post. IMG_5167

What I started doing during the two games was write down notes of my actions and those of the others to make a small vignette of the match. The first one will involve missionaries. Lots of them.

IMG_5169Cindy came up with some great ideas for the card layout. The first involved the relic cards. She thought up of this idea of taking my flavor test and putting them on a scroll/banner that wraps around the actual relic. It’s a pretty brilliant, but it also constrains me to a limited number of words (which is a great challenge). She also wants to incorporate the wrapped scroll idea to the new Prophecy cards.

I will post the little vignette later this week. Until then, spread the Good News.

November Prototype

At the beginning of November, we were ready to print another prototype. The rules and most of the cards had been rewritten. Things were coming together nicely and I was anxious to test out the changes. Cindy had also put some work into the card layouts, which made the game much more pleasant to look at and the rules easier to grasp.

I went through the extra effort to sleeve all the cards this time. Its pretty easy to just take a sleeved card and put a paper insert in front of it, but it makes a big difference when you actually play the game.

Prototype Nov 2012

Prototype Nov 2012

The cards are sturdier, easier to handle, and it makes the prototype feel more real. I’m a big believer in using higher quality materials to do your work. I think it gives what you’re doing a sense of higher importance. It helps keep me motivated and it reminds me that I really am a game designer.

We got a lot of great critiques out of our playtests, despite my poor performance at eliciting feedback. It can be really tough not to get defensive, but it is absolutely essential to focus on asking questions and listening if you hope to get any useful information out of your playtests. Never waste time justifying a design decision, even if you feel the feedback you are being given is wrong. If you go down that road, you run the risk of making your playtesters feel that their feedback is not welcome. Your game will suffer for it. This is a skill I am intent on getting better at.

The game obviously had its problems, but I think the core of the game worked well. It had strategic and puzzley aspects that were really satisfying. If we want these elements to shine, we need to cut away or rework the parts that are holding the game back.

The game being puzzley has its upsides and downsides. The main downside is known as “analysis paralysis”. This is where the player has so many options that they become overwhelmed. While it can be fun for the player to figure out what the best move is, its not terribly exciting for the other players to sit and watch them do this. There are a few ways to deal with this. One is to give players something to do when its not their turn, so the waiting is not so bad. You can add some form of trading or defensive actions, so that players remain engaged while they wait for their turn to come around. You can also make player’s turns shorter by splitting up the phases of a turn or having some phases be shared amongst all players.

What we ended up doing, was reduce the amount of new information a player had to process when it became their turn. Players now draw their cards at the end of their turn, rather than at the beginning. This way, the players can figure out their possible moves during the other player’s turns. So far this has been helpful, but I think there is even more we can do to speed up the game.

One thing I had begun to worry about was that players would settle into a strategy that worked for them and never deviate. This would grow stale very quickly, because the player would no longer be challenged by unanticipated scenarios. The plan to solve this is to add randomness to the starting setup. This way players would have to readjust their strategy for each new game. We added several new Shrines and Followers to the game. Now, when the game is set up, a subset of the Followers and Shrines are randomly selected to play with for that game. We think this will give the game longevity and creates an opportunity for future expansions.

The number one problem we had was wording. The player’s expectations about what a card did, was not always lining up with my intentions. Sometimes this was because of a situation arising that I had not planned for, but most often the culprit was ambiguous wording. The most frustrating was the inconsistent use of the word “discard” to refer to cards being removed from your hand and/or from play. This prompted yet another rewrite of all the cards to use a keyword system. I tried to identify most of the unique mechanics and give them a name. For example, “discard” now only refers to removing cards from your hand. “Destroy” is now used when you are removing an opponent’s card from play. And “sacrifice” is for when you are removing your own card from play. We are still tweaking the wording and trying to bring the keywords more in line with the theme. Overall, I think it’s helping.

The last thing I want to talk about from these tests is a problem I’m referring to as the King-Maker Problem. However, I believe our journey toward addressing that issue merits its own post. So you can look forward to that in the next few days.

Jesus Joins Us at the Round Table

On September 26th 2012, Jesus joined Cindy and I for his first game of Cult Leader. We had brought him in on the project a while ago and it was good that we did. The ideas that he brought to the table that day were the inspiration for many significant improvements.

Prototype

Prototype

Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures from that day. I still have the old prototype though, so I laid them out and snapped some pics. This version of the game had Influence cards, which act as currency and also give you special actions that you can pay for. It had Event cards, which change play for the round that they are flipped. The Shrines and Followers were always available to be purchased with Influence. Filling up a Shrine with Followers would grant special bonuses. And finally God cards, which were dealt out to players at the start of the game and granted unique benefits. Also, note the paper cutter that I purchased online immediately after I cut out 300 cards for our next prototype.

Influence Cards

Influence Cards

This was the first prototype we made where the cards you drew were also the currency you used to purchase things. The currency in our game is called Influence, and you can gain Influence in a variety of ways. Influence cards also give the player access to special actions that they can execute by playing the card and spending any required Influence. In earlier versions, the player was granted a certain amount of money to use during their turn and they had to mentally keep track of it. And in versions before that, we were keeping track of money with tokens.

Having the Influence cards be the currency and a way to give additional options to the player does a few things for us. It allows us to stay true to our design goal of using only cards. The player can easily keep track of how much they have to spend. It also introduces some interesting decision making, since the act of buying something requires the player to discards some of their options.

After this playtest, we ended up splitting the Influence cards into Ideas and Relics. Ideas would perform the same function of providing one-time actions to the player. The new Relic cards would be played the same way, but would persist. This split came from a change in our theme.

Before Jesus entered the picture, the setting of the game was to be on another planet where strange and varied religions were only just starting to form. Jesus had the idea to set the story in a post-apocalyptic Earth, far into the future. And the thing that sold me on this setting was his idea for Relics. The people of this distant future are far more technologically primitive and have little knowledge of what came before. However, they find these strange Relics and take them as sacred artifacts and ritualistic devices. Bringing these into the game gave the player some more interesting choices and gave us a great way to inject a lot of flavor into the game.

Shrines and Followers

Shrines and Followers

The basic mechanics for Followers and Shrines has remained largely the same in the past few versions. Both can be purchased from a common area by spending Influence. Shrines provide you with benefits and/or Power (victory points) once the Shrine meets or exceeds a specified attendance. Followers must become a member of a Shrine when purchased. Followers can also become Missionaries by removing them from the Shrine. If you do so, you gain a benefit unique to that Follower type. After this playtest, we added a few more Follower types and tweaked the benefits of all the Shrines and Followers.

God Cards

God Cards

The idea behind God cards was to give each player a unique benefit, so that they would try to modify their play to take advantage of this benefit. But since this game was supposed to eschew supernatural elements, the Gods were to be imaginary avatars of the religions. We were having a really hard time getting this point across in an elegant manner and ultimately decided to get rid of the God cards. However, we liked the gameplay elements they provided and replaced them with the new Culture cards. This gives the player an interesting window into the game world, while still providing the same mechanical elements.

Since this prototype, we have made huge strides with our story and have been working to bring our mechanics in line with the theme. One of the key challenges of game design is getting the story, mechanics, and aesthetics all to line up and support one another. When you get it right it makes for a much more immersive and enjoyable experience. The theme and mechanics of our game are now doing much better at reinforcing each other, but I think we can do even better. How well the theme and mechanics are fitting together will continue to be one of the main questions I try to answer when playtesting.