Aug 20, 2008

GenCon Fallout - Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed the results of my GenCon playtest for Privateering.

On Saturday night at GenCon I also ran a playtest for Titans of Industry. I've been working on this game for over two years and almost twenty iterations. The last few playtests have only resulted in what I considered to be more and more minor improvements. Because of this, I planned for the playtest to reveal only a need for minor tweaks to these new features.

Things did not go as planned.

Firstly, the game lasted two hours, with two experienced and three new players. And the new players were all experienced playtesters. In fact, the playtest was made up entirely of Andrew Parks and his playtest team. That the game took this long for them was a very bad thing. I need to figure out a way to speed it up.

Second, players kept forgetting to collect real estate income right up until the very end. Speculation that it was because it took so long for players to start getting such income was the culprit; by the time they had built real estate, they were already in the habit of not collecting income.

I'll quickly mention some clarity issues.
  • Need to be explicit that only one facility can be used per turn
  • "Recycling" advancement confusing about whose discarded goods count
  • Age Two "replacement" advancements worded confusingly, players thought they could only replace the same type of cube
The age two advancement's wording was particularly problematic, as players misunderstood how they worked and didn't purchase them. Their failure to do so both doomed the player who has invested in Universities and prevented my major anti-"bottoming out" mechanic from coming into play.

The major balance issue was the turn order. A relatively new rule has a player jump to the front of the turn order when he or she builds a real estate card. I did this for two reasons: 1) to shuffle the player order and 2)to incentivize real estate for new players, who routinely ignore it. I wanted to get people to build real estate faster in order to speed up the game. The problem was that this made real estate astonishingly powerful. One player got only two turns during the second age because of this. This imbalance in turns taken, though slight, was enough to cause players to harbor very negative feelings about the mechanic.

Another balance problem is the triple-activation of facilities. This enabled a player to make nine cubes on the very first turn of an age, locking up a pricing grid before anyone else could take a turn. I have been trying to increase the cost for this over many versions of the game, and it is never enough. I am just going to remove the option altogether. Facilities will be limited to two activations per turn.

Strategy-wise, I discovered that the game is . . . difficult. There is too much going on for a new player to comprehend the deeper rhythm of the game. This was confirmed by the final scores: Andy 108, Michael 68, Anni 54, Catherine 48, Norm 22. Only Andy and Anni had played this game before. Andy's experience really allowed him to dominate this one, as he took an early lead by adapting to other player's actions and then used that lead to suffocate them.

Any of the other players (two in particular) could have easily stopped him and improved their own standings, but some were afraid of losing such a fight and others felt that their initial attempts to do so were unsuccessful and abandoned further efforts in that direction. In reality, those attempts were successful and should have been continued for full effect.

The players did not realize it because, and this is something one of them said later, this game's mechanics are too different from other resource games. In those, it is about collecting resources for yourself to power your engine. You generally want to prevent your opponents from having access to resources. In this game, a key component of the strategy is being the one who sells your opponents the goods they need. This is counter-intuitive and caused players to avoid winning strategies.

Seeing that happen was dispiriting. Frustrating. Maddening.

This is because, as Andy said, a game's designer "can't come in the box". First-time players will have to figure out the strategy for themselves. When those first-time players get frustrated by losing and not understanding why, there will be no second-time players. That means that a game whose strategy is as obtuse and unforgiving as mine was that night is completely, utterly unpublishable.

For those of you fellow game designer wannabes out there, that is a bad thing to realize about your game.

Thankfully, the Quixotic Games testing crew had some great suggestions on how to solve many of these problems. I will discuss those solutions in my next post.

2 comments:

  1. Good luck with you design. I thumbed through the rules of 'Titans of Industry' and really enjoyed it. I hope to play it one day. :)

    cclouser

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  2. As a counterpoint, if first-time players can grasp the strategies of the game and play competitively against experienced players in their very first play, the game may not have enough depth for a "heavy" game.

    I think a good rule of thumb is that a player should be able to figure out within the first half of his first game "what am I supposed to be doing?", though he may not yet see the best way to go about doing it. By the end of the first playing, he should be able to look back and the game and recognize some of his moves as "mistakes", and have some ideas about what to do differently next time.

    I would be careful about drawing too many conclusions or making too many big changes as a result of playtests with new players. Primarily, you want to design a game that holds up when played by experienced players, so you can be sure that there are no broken strategies. Seeing how new players react to the game and how quickly they climb the learning curve is helpful and important, but it should primarily affect the presentation of the game. True, the designer can't ship with the game, but there's no reason you can't provide some gentle strategic guidance in the rulebook if there is anything truly counterintuitive. There are of course games that are genuinely too complex or too convoluted for players to be able to learn, and they need to be simplified (I've designed several games like that!), but the counterintuitive elements in your game are really only very mildly counterintuitive and don't, I think, rise to the level where the game is hopelessly lost. Not by a longshot.

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