Towards a Holy Grail (Part 2)

I put together the first prototype for the game that would become Walsingham back in 2010. The idea was less focused then. I have always loved auction games, and I married the idea of hidden roles with another idea I had been kicking around: a simultaneous auction (as in, say, Homesteaders or Cyclades) that rewards players for being outbid. (Thematically, the auction house is paying out kickbacks, I suppose.) The auction drove a set-collection game: players were rewarded for having sets of colors as well as the majority of each color.

There is plenty of discussion as to how soon to give a game its theme. My opinion is that the game gets a theme as soon as it needs it. Montana was always a simple game, and stayed Space Poker until it needed art and a name to put on the box. By contrast, Invasion was Invasion out of the gate, and the theme helped drive both the names and abilities on the Gadget cards. (Likewise, it seems pretty likely that Ra was given its theme when it needed art, while it’s impossible to imagine the mechanics of Battlestar Galactica with any other theme.) This game didn’t need a theme yet, but it did need a working title. I was using colored cubes for the set collection: gems. Some of the gems were cursed, and only one role wanted to pick those up. Who likes curses, instead of being afraid of them? Witches, I suppose. OK, the working title became Gems and Witches.

So, Gems and Witches, 2010. Curses were negative points for every player except for the player who was secretly a Witch, who got positive points. One of the late-game resources available provided an Accusation, which gave a player big points for identifying the Witch, and nullified the Witch’s huge bonus points for spending the whole game blatantly picking up curses. The auction/set collection game was pretty solid if derivative–I think 1997’s Reiner Knizia could have developed it into a 1997 hit without too much trouble–but the aspect of guessing and finding Witches didn’t work. I had hoped that the players could use the bonus-for-getting-outbid auction mechanic to leverage their knowledge, but the math never worked out, and the Accusation always ended up an anticlimax.

Boldly charging down the wrong road in 2011, I added more roles: unaligned Merchants that got better bonuses for certain colors, a Hunter that got a bigger bonus for correctly accusing the Witch, a Decoy that got bonus points for being falsely accused. I added special gems that players got big points for having exactly one of at certain intervals. The reasoning for those was to give players a cover for otherwise-erratic bidding. Again, it worked out interestingly from an auction perspective, but fell flat from the hidden-role perspective. There was just no happy medium between the Witch playing coyly (and not getting enough curse points to win) and playing openly (and drawing an obvious accusation from whoever pounced on it first).

2012 came and I tried again. First, a retitle. Montana had been published with its working title of “Space Poker”, so, ok, let’s use “Space” to mean “working-title name for a prototype game”. Honest traders don’t want contraband, because they don’t have the contacts to sell it; smugglers do, but they have to stay hidden. Hence, Space Smugglers. I ripped the set-collection and points-for-being-outbid mechanics out entirely; this isn’t the right game for them, and they took too long to explain and didn’t fit with the game. Most of the cards gave VP and Trouble, as the the curses became known, directly, although there were still some “flavored” VP to give Merchants the incentive to bid on one rather than another.

The Space Smugglers playtest was possibly the most disastrous playtest I’ve ever conducted, and I think I redeemed myself only by cutting it short after about 15 minutes when it was obvious that everything had gone to hell. Sorry, Matt, Eric, and David. What didn’t work about the game that time? Well, everything. There were a lot of hidden roles, and they all had to be explained up-front so that players’ action in the game could make sense. And then they didn’t anyway, because the auctions didn’t work. The auctions had too many moving pieces–bids going back and forth, chips gained, player pieces moving on tracks. Most of the scoring happened only at the end, and it wasn’t at all clear how any game turn related to the next. The set collection, which was the strongest part of the previous iteration, was gone with nothing to replace it. I wrote up some notes, shelved the game, and procrastinated working on it until now.

Tomorrow, I should be finished prototyping the latest changes to the game, now working-titled Walsingham. I’ll discuss what I believe I learned from the previous iteration and the changes I made (many!) as a result.

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