Saturday, March 28, 2009

GameStorm 2009 at Halftime

This weekend I'm at the GameStorm boardgame convention, ostensibly in Oregon but actually just over the border in Vancouver Washington. For me the high points so far have been seeing my in-laws (Joan is an avid gamer), gaming with my design buddy Seth Jaffee, and presenting Hammer and Spike.

GameStorm has a "GameLab" track for game designers and playtesters. I got an appointment to present Hammer and Spike to a panel of local game publishers, not so much in hopes of getting it published but in order to get feedback on the game and its presentation. It was a good session, maybe 20 to 30 minutes. I got good advice and answers to a few questions I had about the industry. (For example, I learned that the game duration shown on a game's box is for new players, not experienced ones! I didn't know that.) There wasn't time to play the game so the panel doesn't really know if a game is any good. But they were impressed with what they saw, which was very gratifying; and I got invited to bring Hammer and Spike to an invitation-only playtest session on Sunday (tomorrow, as I write this) for the best of the games they have reviewed this weekend.

I had one informal playtest yesterday with Seth, his friend Jeremy, Joan, and myself. It went well, but we all agreed that it went too long. I currently set the game at a constant 20 rounds, but the game was definitely "over" after 17 or 18 rounds. This is a point I've been dithering over, and I now think that 20 really is probably too many. I'm going to try 18 for a while: a bigger cut than it sounds like, since the last rounds are analysis-paralysis festivals and take way longer than earlier rounds. I still want a typical game to come in at 2 hours or less.

It's now Saturday morning, and I'm looking forward to playing some of Seth's designs: Terra Prime, Homesteaders, and/or Brain Freeze. I played Terra Prime two years ago and I'm eager to see the changes he's made since then. Homesteaders (designed by Alex Rockwell, but Seth helped with development) and Brain Freeze are games I haven't played yet, and I'm eager to see them.

I'll update this post with a few links later on, but right now it's time to gather our aggies and head for the con. Game on!

P.S. Saturday evening—I've added those links, and here's another: Seth's GameStorm reports.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Adventures in Prototyping

My game design blogging has a split personality; much of it goes here, but some also goes up at the Board Game Designers Forum. This weekend I made a more durable board for the Nameless Rail Game, and chronicled the effort in some detail in my journal there. I felt that the content was of more interest to hard-core designers than to the more general crowd that reads this site, but if you're interested, follow the link.

I made the board because a flat, stiff, foldable board is a lot easier to transport than the taped-together big sheets of paper I've been making for home use. Helen and I are about to head up to Oregon to visit family and attend GameStorm, where I hope to get more playtesting done.

And the beast may finally have a name. The new board is labeled Hammer and Spike, which may not be great but is not in use by any other games. It will serve until and unless I hear a distinctly better suggestion. My thanks to all those who suggested alternate names, but I have to live with Helen and she didn't like some of them, so Hammer and Spike it is.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Picking Up Steam

Two more live playtests, at the Los Altos Games Day! The game was well received, and I was quite pleased with the results.

The changes I made after last week's session worked well. Playtime came in at about two hours, and I suspect would be a bit shorter with experienced players. Players successfully built transcontinental networks and made coast-to-coast deliveries by the end of the game. A few switchyards were built in each game, but never all six. That all seemed just right.

On the down side, my long-standing worries that the scoring system is badly balanced were borne out. The reward for connecting all six cities is so high that a player who fails to do so is almost guaranteed to lose. This would be okay except that it's usually clear which players will fail by around halfway through the game. It's no fun being the goat in a game in which there is almost always one designated goat.

The way to fix that is probably to raise the VP reward for building switchyards. The trailing player has an advantage here, in a way: if he is flexible enough to give up on the six-city goal early enough, he will save several actions and a fair amount of cash. He can then devote those resources to switchyard building, and remain competitive with the six-city players.

I have also recently revised the simulator to play by the new rules, and run another couple hundred thousand simulations or so. These were, as before, mostly explorations of balance. It has become quite clear that an intelligent first player has a huge advantage over his opponents, because the choice of starting locations is not even remotely balanced. This isn't unusual for rail games. The simulations show that it can be balanced by giving the players differing amounts of starting cash. In the game rules, I expect I will express this in two ways: a "standard game" in which the starting cash is simply dictated by the rules, and an "advanced game" in which the players hold an initial auction for turn order. Players will use the standard rules until they feel qualified to judge fine differences in starting positions, and can then advance to the auction rules. (Unlike Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon, I don't think this game needs a turn-order auction every round. One at the start of the game should be sufficient, and the turn order need not change after that.)

Finally, I came away with a clear understanding about the current inadequacies of the board graphics and the player aids. This is not part of game design (since I have no plans to self-publish), but a well-made prototype really helps newbies concentrate on the game instead of on decoding the board and remembering the rules. I have some ideas for improvements, and I will be playing around in Photoshop to try to turn those ideas into clear graphics.