Jun 29, 2008

Origins 2008 - Saturday

Titans of Industry was rejected. This did not come as a big shock.

The previous night I had seen, as I was leaving the board room, my game being played by people obviously working for the publisher to whom I had given it. I did, however, see that one of the players wasn't having a good time. I could tell by the game state that the game was only about 15 minutes old. However, one of the players was already clearly hating the experience. This person was staring off into space with the "what did I get myself into" look. I left, as I didn't want to watch and I had been heading to bed anyway. But when I got back to my room I got anxious and headed back. I walked by the table every 20 or so minutes but didn't say anything, as I didn't want to interfere.

In between, I spoke to some designer friends of mine who are at the convention. They told me that they had heard the complaints of the playtesters. Common themes among the complaints: long, boring, dry, repetitive. Needless to say I felt like crap at this point.

When the game was wrapping up, I listened to their postmortem. There seemed to be one person who liked it, one person who thought it was interesting but was unenthusiastic about it, and the one I mentioned who hated it with an absolute passion. After leaving the table to speak to someone, this person said pretty loudly "I just played a long, boring, stinky game" and that was "three hours of my life that I'll never get back".

(I want to be clear: I am not trying to paint this person with a bad brush. I am just trying to convey how strongly this person felt that what I have spent over two years designing was deeply, painfully flawed.)

I was pretty crushed. My game was apparently pretty awful. Although one of the players said he liked it, the others accused him of liking boring economic games. And even he said he wouldn't want to play it again for at least a month. After commiserating with my fellow Spielbany designers, I eventually made it to bed around 3:30am.

The next day I met back up with the publisher. He told me that the main problems were:
  • Too long
  • Too dry
  • Too fiddly
He said that at 3 hours, it was far too long. I'm pretty sure that his timing estimate of my game must have included the rules explanation, because when I timed it with even more people it was still only two and a half hours long. I asked him what my target time limit should be and he said 90 minutes with 120 minutes maximum for new players.

As far as dry, I suppose that such a comment must have been about the lack of random events or a sharply curved game arc. I suppose that the end of the game does look a lot like the beginning. However, I feel that if I did cut down the time, then it would help make the "dry" feeling disappear.

I had thought that the "fiddly" criticism probably stemmed from things like my third-age inflation rule or maybe how payouts were handled. In reality, the publisher said that the problem was having to deal with all of the cubes. Unfortunately, this is the core of the game. Without all those cubes, the game doesn't exist at all. He said that he had discussed it with his people and they also couldn't figure out a way to get rid of the cube mechanic and still have it be the same game.

The publisher did tell me that the game was an accurate simulation of a market and that everything fit well with the theme. He said that is wasn't a horrible game, but that it was one that didn't make people want to play again. I was invited to resubmit at GenCon in August if I was able to work on the aforementioned problems.

After that meeting, I went to the board game room and thought about the design. It was a little hard to get my mind off of the rejection. My entire trip was structured around getting my game published and I had apparently not even come close.

Eventually I decided to abandon brooding and use the time productively. I looked over the criticisms I had collected and made a list of both minor changes and radical changes which I felt could possibly address one or more of the complaints. I finally decided on two which I could implement immediately.

The minor change was to add special abilities to the level three buildings. One special ability made every two cubes sold worth three market share points, instead of one per each. The second ability was that once per turn you could replace an opponent's cube with one that you were producing. The third special ability allowed you to destroy one of your cubes to also destroy three cubes not belonging to you in the same market.

The major change was to reduce the age-trigger mechanism from every fourth real estate card being built to every third real estate card being built. I was concerned that this would speed the game up far too much and prevent players from having the time to develop a strategy.

After making these changes, I set up the game in the board game room and waited for people to take a look and maybe get in a playtest of these new rules. Three hours later, I had yet to so much as have another human being speak to me. This was in stark contrast to Friday, when several people at least expressed an interest in playtesting at a later time.

I had given up and was putting the game away with the intention of taking a nap when a couple of friends of mine from Speilbany, John Velonis and James Murlock, showed up and asked to playtest the game. I said sure but that we would probably want more people. John, designer of Venus Needs Men!, went to look for people. When he came back, he had brought Doug and Anni, with whom I had traveled. He didn't even know that I was friends with them, making this quite the unlikely occurrence.

We sat down and I decided to let them play without me, as I wanted to focus on observing the effects of the changes and not be distracted by having to play myself. I got the rules done in 15 minutes, which beat my previous record by a full 10 minutes. I would still like to cut the explanation down to under 10 minutes, but at least this has improved.

The special abilities on the level 3 real estate cards were only used once. This is because they aren't normally built until the game is about to end. This made them a non-factor, as the only player to gain any benefit netted but three measly points.

The game lasted 90 minutes. Success! I had successfully reached the magic number. The age lengths broke down to 25 minutes, 15 minutes, and 31 minutes, with the rest used up by the three scoring rounds. Unfortunately, I don't know how many turns each player took.

The final scores were: Doug 95, John 77, James 76, Anni 65. This was actually one of the largest spreads this game has seen. I have no doubt that the shorter length contributed to that. Still, Doug was far, far behind at the end of the second age and still came back to win it convincingly.

Feedback from the playtest:
  • factories and oil wells seem to lack value
  • maybe I should lengthen the game by adding just one more real estate card to the first age
  • the game is at its best with at least five players
  • component issues: facility icons too small to distinguish from across the table; the lack of market icons on the board made the connection between the rings and the demand icons difficult
  • the game scales in such a way that the experience changes drastically
  • not enough / imbalanced competition with only four player
  • the marginal build costs feel high
  • give players a free "second action" card at start of game
  • increase cost of "second action" advancement card
I decided the best way to incentivize using the oil well and factory was the lower their labor costs to make them cheaper to use than the basic resource facilites. Since I had a meeting with a second publisher that night, I set about making the changes.

While I was doing so, someone came over and asked me about the game. After I gave him my five minute speech. he told me that he owned Jolly Roger Games. He said that he wasn't looking for submissions at this point, but that he liked economic games and wanted to help me out with some advice about getting published. He told me meet him the next day at his booth.

Eventually, I met with the second publisher. Unfortunately, by that time it was impossible to find anyone who wanted to playtest the game. So I ended up just walking the publisher through the game's concept and rules. He asked me some questions about it and immediately identified a problem.

I had told him that the game could theoretically be played by three people but that it really needed at least four to work and preferably five or six. He said that I needed to work on it and get it to work with three people. This is because almost no game can be sold if it doesn't support three players. He was right that almost every game out there allows three-to-five players. He said that the upper limit didn't matter that much but that he couldn't publish a game that didn't support three. I told him I would work on the problem and he said that he liked the concept and was willing to look at it again when I had done so.

So my goal for Sunday was to come up with three-player rules and to playtest them.

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