Join me on my continuing multi-part series as Martin and I attempt to turn our jumble of half-conceived brain sparks into our first fully functioning board game.
Part 16 - Cyclic Powers
The cycle of playtest-change stuff-playtest is probably at the heart of game design (although I’m conscious it doesn’t make for the most interesting reading in a blog). Having an idea for a game is just that. It does not become a working model until you start creating tangible things to try out your idea. What can sometimes feel like an amazing and game-changing idea can quickly collapse under scrutiny, but is a necessary process nonetheless.
One of the things I have been thinking about lately is what purpose the changes have? They tend to fall under two categories; changes that make the game better and changes that are purely there because something didn’t work or a player exploited a mechanic.
In the early days, I’ve realised some of the fixes were quite lazy. For example, some of the action spots cost victory points but you tended not to have any points until later on in the game. We lazily gave starting victory points (VPs) based on the reverse of the randomly generated turn order (i.e. the first player got four VPs). With the right combination of location and regime, a player could end up with quite a large head start, so we have since reduced this number and integrated it better into the regime cards which define the starting resources of players.
Other changes enhance what you are doing and evolve a concept. These are the best ones and we’ve been doing more of these and less of the others recently; suggesting we are moving in the right direction.
I was lucky enough to have three playtest sessions this month with three different groups of people. One of the most challenging things to get right is the speed in which the enemies invade the board. We have experienced both where, if they come too slowly, it can be a boring experience. If they come too fast, players are overwhelmed and it’s not much fun. This is still ongoing months later.
Martin and I discussed a system of mission objectives. This was mainly a fix for a semi co-op game where, if a player deduces that they have no way of winning, they can tank the game. This deduction would be mainly based on seeing the scoring track. We figured, if there were secret mission cards that provided a boost in victory points at the end of the game for achieving certain tasks, it might mitigate the likelihood of someone metaphorically flipping the table.
The second playtest highlighted this even more where there was a great disparity between first and last place. It also highlighted a challenge where it came to ending the game, which we hadn’t put a great deal of thought into. Did we end it when the enemies ran out? Do we end it when the final rift is closed? If they do close the rift, what happens after? Does the game end immediately or go on another turn to allow players to ‘mop up’ remaining enemies?
It was something we trialled in the third playtest which raised questions around what would happen after the rift was closed. It brought about an idea where the Titan would be destroyed, sacrificing itself for the greater good (I thought calling it The Omega would be cool) but the player would receive a large victory point boost and have the feeling of saving the world.
The speed in which the enemies approached was still a difficult balance but gave us another idea; what if the backs of the enemy cards contained movement information and some sort of global effect? Effects could be positive but mainly negative, including things like locking out a region’s action spots or enemies receiving a health boost for the turn. We believed it would also help replay-ability as it introduced variety.
This latest playtest occurred in October (I am writing this in December) and it continued to feel like we were moving in the right direction. It has to be said, playtesting can be frustrating but each evolution felt like an improvement. I’d hate if we made a significant change that we then tested only to find it didn’t work at all. I’d glad that hasn’t happened yet but I’m sure it does for some people. I’m sure we have all played games before where it felt like another round or two of playtesting would have really helped the game, which brings me onto Dragonsgate College.
I’d recently watched Martin play it on YouTube through his friend Jason’s Gaming Knights channel. At the conclusion, all the players provided their feedback and it was universally accepted that it felt like an incomplete game. There were confusing elements like the random buffs that could either be really weak or really powerful. It was confusing why the designers didn’t scale these along with the round number.
It got me thinking about how certain games that feel sub-par get to market. WE could be one of those games! I’m not saying I’m setting the bar low and intending to release a poor game but isn’t it interesting that, in this crowded market, games are still released that come up short? My theory is, if Dragon College was released and, from what I understand, did quite well, then we surely have a shot with LAST STAND.
As Christmas was approaching, I figured it would allow us time to consolidate and really focus on the things that didn’t work. Christmas was approaching and I welcomed the free time to be able to fix the problems we had encountered.