Dec 2, 2013

Metatopia 2013 - Recap - Part 1

Now that BGG.Con is over and everyone is excitedly reading about the games you'll see in a few months, I figured it was finally time to post about games you probably won't see for years! I'm the Variety of boardgames.

Wheel of War

First up Friday morning was a "high test" for Wheel of War by Roll for Surprise Games. Unfortunately, this game was not at all ready for a high test.

Procedural note: when signing up for Metatopia, you can choose a focus group discussion (shaping early idea of a game), a traditional playtest, or a "high test". High tests are locked sessions where the convention staff hand-picks participants who they feel are highly skilled, with the idea being for designs that are very late in development and need someone strong to search for any holes that the previous bulk of playtesting had failed to spot.

Wheel of War is an abstracted combat game that uses randomly dealt cards in half a dozen suits of values from 1-5 with both trump and anti-trump suits being given +5 and -5 strength. It is designed to be a family game from 40-80 minutes in length. Players each create three facedown piles of cards dealt randomly from a common deck. Each of these piles represents a location you own. The locations between players are connected by a central wheel with about 50 spaces on it. Each space is marked with a color. On your turn, you roll a die and spin the wheel that many spaces. You can then attack other players' piles, but only where the colors match between your pile and theirs. Attacking a player compares your top car against theirs, with modifiers for trump/anti-trump (the suits of which you can change once per turn by spending a random card draw. Piles are facedown, but you can look at your pile and the first time a card enters combat it is turned faceup. Winning a combat destroys the opponent's card and does "damage". Every 10 damage resets their damage meter and give the player who did the last point of damage an extra card. After the deck runs out players count the strength on their remaining cards (modifying for the last trump/anti-trump) and that is your score.

Analysis-wise, this game is randomness masquerading as strategy. The wheel spins are random and you can only attack based on your wheel. You might even have the black color land on your piles, which prevents it from attacking or being attacked. Opponents' cards are usually face-down, so even in a matchup it is usually a blind gamble on initiating combat. The score every 10th damage on an opponent means you generally don't want to attack unless you would deliver the 10th point (otherwise you're handing the points to the next person who is lucky enough to have the wheel land in such a way that they can attack that opponent. This means that you can have turns where you have no decisions to make and when you do the decisions are obvious.

This isn't meant to be deep strategy. It's a family game. Some problems with that. Non-turn turns because of the roll of a die are not fun for impatient kids (or anyone, really). Massively limiting interaction in a combat game isn't fun. The wheel makes every turn start with 30 seconds of looking at the color of every player's locations. That's for an adult; a child could take twice as long to do that searching (the spaces are about half an inch in arc). Children doing color hunting 20 times apiece each game will wear thin fast. The battles are straight-up number comparisons. When the rules were being explained, I expected that a die roll would be added to each side in battle (de rigeur in these types of games). Nope. Just 1-5 comparison with a trump or anti-trump generally guaranteeing victory.

On the plus side, the scoring system means no player elimination.

Found out afterwards that this was the first test outside of the publisher's family and friends to play the game. I love Metatopia, but I think most of what we found could have been spotted by any playtest group. I would be in favor of some sort of filter for high tests, even if it's just an unverified questionnaire about the playtest history of the game that nudges designers to not go for a high test until it is ready. However, the publisher had planned to go to Kickstarter with this game shortly after Metatopia and decided to postpone that for more development. So, we can be happy to have prevented that error.


  1. Remember that WE don't determine who gets a Hi-Test - it is requested by the designers.

    1. I completely understand. And Metatopia's biggest strength is how much it caters itself to designers. That's what makes it my favorite convention. However, I don't think this publisher really understood the testing lifecycle and what is needed when. I'm not saying Metatopia should become more rigid. But maybe giving gentle nudges to designers would help everyone in the long run.

      I'm trying to think of a positive way to handle situations where designers don't know what they're getting into. Maybe it would be good to put together a short "best practices" guide to give to designers after their initial registration? I would volunteer to contribute to the board game half of such a guide.