May 25, 2008

Spielbany May 2008

I went up to Dobbs Ferry yesterday to show off and get feedback on Titans of Industry (formerly called Conglomerate) and Privateering (a re-themed Television Executive).

Here are my notes from the Titans of Industry test:
2:00pm_________2:30 _______4:00
yellow steel ______13 ________33
green wood _______2_________28
black steel _______4 _________30
blue stone _______12 ________53
red wood_________1 ________28
white stone_______1__________6

Mule - computer game look it up
Cuba - board game check out laws
age-specific advancements
warehouse option?
age-restricted pricing
end of age 1, only one good in consumer market
is free labor when broke problematic?
reconfigure board
$3 per real estate per turn
$50 starting
look at monetary flows on a macro level
think about expansion costs
use wood or stone to build a forge
multiple firings of facilities
starting goods
need more competition in consumer market
eliminate one sector
reduce demands
combine resource with
The first section up above is a quick game state summary. Once the rules were explained, the game started at around 2:00. The colors listed are the order of the six players, as well as the starting facility that player chose.

The first age ended quite quickly. In fact, when the last first age building was built, only a single good had been placed in the consumer market, even though there was demand for over two dozen in total. Needless to say, this was an unexpected result. I think the neglect in the consumer market is the reason the first age ended in half an hour, when I had aimed for it to take closer to 40 minutes.

In the second age, players hit a cash flow problem. Even though there was a rule that waived labor costs which you could not afford, the problem was that everyone was poor, so no one could buy the resources everyone was producing. Even though there was rental income from the real estate market, it was not enough to offset the labor costs.

The reason I had not seen this coming was that when I had designed the labor costs, I had designed things on a per-player level. In previous versions of the game, there were no labor costs. The result was that players always priced their products as close to zero as possible. The labor costs were designed as a way to force players to start the pricing war above zero, lest they go bankrupt. This way, there would be room to undercut other players, whereas before players would start at zero and could only go higher.

So I added labor costs, starting at $4 per facility activation. I figured that bankruptcy would not be a problem, because a player low on money would be sure to price his or her goods high enough to make a profit, so he or she would make a net profit on any activation of his or her facilities. Since bankrupt players could still run their facilities, selling their freely-produced goods to other players gave them a way to climb out of a hole. However, this line of thinking was pure folly.

When the game began to break down as everyone simultaneously going bankrupt, one player, Jeff, made a very astute observation: that while individual players had a strategy for making money, on a macro level this would not work because it relied on other players having money. When you looked at the total amount of money in the game, the labor costs were sucking more money out of the game than real estate rents were injecting back in. The consumer market was also designed to inject money back into the game, but consumption happens only three times per game, and one of those is at the end of the game. This meant it couldn't be relied on as an early game income source.

I wanted to get a timing on the game (I had designed it as a 90-minute game, but this was the first test with this version) so I instituted some mid-game rules changes and asked the players to continue. The first change was an increase in real estate rent payments from $1 to $3. The second change was a one-time $20 payout to all players, effectively increasing the starting money from $25 to $45. These two seemed to do the trick, as there was now enough liquidity to allow the inter-player markets to function.

During this time, players appeared to focus on the consumer market, generally ignoring the resource market. For every good placed in the resource market, there were about five placed in the consumer market. This was the polar opposite of the first age, in which the consumer market was the one to suffer neglect.

We only played until the end of the second age, as by then I had gotten a sufficiently good idea of the game's timing and knew how to proceed with the next version of this game.

What I found interesting was the score distribution at the end of the second round. The players had expressed a concern at the start of the game that there might be an imbalance in the starting facilities. However, the age two scores do not bear that out. The two players who started with steel forges averaged 31.5 points, lumber camps averaged 28 points, and stone quarries averaged 29.5 points.

The big disparity between individual players' scores (high of 53, low of 6, median of 29) was not a function of starting facilities but of strategy. On of the stone quarry players decided to ignore producing stone early on and built universities to produce research. This meant that the other player who started with a stone quarry was able to quickly corner the stone market.

The players generally had positive things to say about the future of Titans of Industry, in spite of the changes that clearly need to be made. The also suggested I check out an old computer game, Mule, that they said was well known for its market mechanics. They said many attempts had been made to turn it into a board game, but that my game was actually the closest anything had come to approximating its complexity while still retaining the level of abstraction necessary to keep this fun.

The only two suggestions that I rejected out of hand were a) an ability for players to "warehouse" resources for them to use without placing them on the resource market first and b) game-automated non-player creation and purchase of resources. I don't want to implement the first one because it would drastically decrease player interaction. The second one violates my core design goal for this game: a player-controlled economy where external pricing factors are minimized. All the feedback was appreciated, but those two points are the only ones I was unwilling to think about using in the next version.

Changes slated for the next version:
  1. Decrease initial labor costs.
  2. Increased labor costs as the game goes on.
  3. Higher starting money.
  4. Combine resource and consumer markets.
  5. Change physical design of buildings from rectangular cards to square tiles.
  6. Lower total demand.
  7. Age-restricted pricing to prevent gouging early on.
  8. Replace demand numbers with easily-countable icons.
  9. Make small market share counters.
  10. Allow multiple use of facilities for an increased cost.
  11. Allow different resources to be used to construct basic facilities.
In my next post, I will discuss the Privateering playtest.

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