Category Archives: Playtest

Walsingham: further playtest report

I finally got Walsingham to the table again, following my last round of changes. Once again, the mood at the table was subdued as it ended… and then suddenly passionate about the different ways the endgame might have played out. I’m now a little bit worried and maybe unsure what to make of this? But I suppose that for now, I’ll just keep making the improvements that are in front of me. Points is points, as they say, and better is better.

A rundown of the changes made, how they went, and what further changes might be on deck:

  • I tried a new auction mechanism, which was a little difficult to explain but completely satisfactory in execution. The new mechanism is this: You get two chances to bid. On your first bid, you can bid any unique amount. (So if Alice bids 4, and Bob bids 6, then Cindy can bid 0, 3, 5, 10… anything except for 4 or 6). On your second bid, you can either hold your previous bid or increase, but if you increase, you have to bid yourself up to first place. This keeps the auction fast and prevents people from weaseling into second, say. The last place bidder pays nothing (and gets a stipend). First place pays full price, and every other bidder pays half.
  • We played with rebalanced endgame scoring: 5 VP for stopping the Spy. The player who won this award (me) didn’t win the game, but it was very close, and to some degree I was punished for bidding mistakes.
  • The Spy felt… oppressed. It’s very difficult to subtly pick up Intrigue and not make it obvious to the other players. I don’t know how to deal with this. I could put more emphasis on the Spy’s chance for a VP victory (fine, but seems to take away from the drama of the game). I could give the Spy an easier time, for instance by making Accusations less punishing, but then the Spy has no incentive to play cautiously, again subtracting from the drama.
  • The players generally felt that the Rewards and Secret cards both needed “something extra”. I’m cautious about including new mechanics just for fun, but I think I agree. A little more texture is called for.
  • One of the improvements is that the money awards in the Rewards deck need to go. It makes no sense to bid money and then maybe get money back. I’ll probably adjust the last-bid stipend to compensate if more money needs to be injected back into the game.
  • A card that reduces the sting of Accusations. Of course, buying this card is itself suspicious! Alternatively: a card that provides a VP incentive for being falsely Accused. You have a lot of Intrigue and buy it. Are you a Loyal player hoping to score cheap VP, or a brazen Spy?
  • A card that is worth a lot of VP, but penalizes you if your Accusation is incorrect.
  • The “Big Reveal” card that requires you to reveal your Loyalty cards led to an interesting auction (the Spy bailed to avoid getting stuck with it) but having a Loyal player reveal reduced the drama and mystery for everyone else. The card needs to either be removed or reworked, perhaps to reveal only one of your cards.
  • A set of big-VP and big-Intrigue cards, but you can only score one of them. Some of these could even be Secret cards, which would add some more interest to that deck. Unless I have a better idea, I could theme this as “Political Marriage”.
  • The card that lets one player spy on all of another player’s Secrets is definitely too powerful for 4p; it just adds too much information. It might be OK for 5p or it might need to be toned down or reworked.
  • A card that blocks spying in some way. My brainstorm was: Block the next attempt to Peek at your Loyalty cards or Secrets. Both you and the blocked player gain $10.
  • A card that allows you to either Peek or gain some kind of resource.
  • Finally: Instead of money on cards, there could be some kind of intermediate currency or goal–having at least one, or having a certain amount, or having the most, could gain you a reward of some kind. That reward could be VP or Intrigue or one of the previously mentioned rewards–maybe the biggest Political Marriage?

Thanks to Ed, Josh, and Zach for playing and providing feedback!

Badgerkastan: Something there, needs an overhaul

I finally made it back to my local design-and-playtest group night, BOGA DAP, for the first time in a while. Unfortunately, the only other person to make it was Philip Migas. Fortunately, he was willing to give the still-very-rough Badgerkastan a shot.

It was a very productive session because it confirmed that the core of the game, the bluffing and guessing, is fundamentally fun(good!). It also confirmed at this early point in the process that the game needs a total overhaul (inevitable, and obvious in retrospect) and gave me some good suggestions in the way of new directions to take the game (also good). Here is a summary of my notes:

  • The game needs a negative feedback mechanism. Currently, if your cards are in a good place and you score, they stay in a good place, and then your opponent has to both dislodge you and try to gain ground somewhere else. Apropos of this, the tug-of-war VP tracker doesn’t work well currently and doesn’t make sense at all in a game with a negative feedback mechanism. It needs to be a race, possibly with some kind of alternate sudden-death victory condition.
  • The fun part of the game is playing cards. You should get to play cards every turn and everything should spring out of that. Playing to each district should let you take the other actions right away. The districts can be balanced in that districts that are inherently valuable have less important actions.
  • This does mean that the Despot probably needs to be rebalanced to have a deck large enough to draw from.
  • There are probably too many districts right now. Five should be enough.
  • Tricking your opponent into using their power to fall into a trap, or scare them away with an empty bluff, is awesome. Drawing only bluffs when what you need is power sucks. Careful design is needed. One idea is to make most of the cards that don’t inherently provide power into traps of some kind.
  • The current “menu” of actions is too broad, adding confusion and providing new players with no idea of what to do. Associating actions with certain regions, which I like anyway, also helps mitigate this problem.
  • It would be cool to have cards whose effect is greater/lesser/different depending on where they are deployed.
  • Keeping track of where the game is on the your turn/my turn/whose turn to score is onerous and taxing, given the pace of the game. A tracker of some kind is needed.
  • The current mechanism of escalation, Foreign Influence, doesn’t work at all. One possible idea would be to use the time tracker to also escalate the effects of Foreign Influence over time.

Thanks very much to Phil for putting up with a still-raw game and providing many excellent ideas!

Ditching a lousy rule

One of the rules I tried out in the playtest was: If there is no Spy, the player with the most Intrigue is eliminated, rather than earning a bonus. This rule arose thematically and on the surface I like it: if it turns out there is no Spy, the person who’s been snooping around all those seedy alleys ends up looking like a conspirator, rather than a hero.

However, upon reflection, this rule is lousy for several reasons, and I’ll be ditching it.

  1. It’s an extra bit of complexity. Every rule that has to do with loyalty has to be taught and drilled in at the very beginning of the game, since you can’t ask clarifying questions midgame without giving everything away, so this rule is extra ripe for removal.
  2. It scares people away from taking Intrigue, creating confusion. I had hoped that it would create a little mini-mind-game of players maybe wanting to deliberately avoid Intrigue. However…
  3. Most importantly, it will never be relevant. To actually affect the outcome of the game, this rule would mean that one player would have to collect both the most VP (to otherwise win the game) and the most Intrigue (to lose instead). Given that VP and Intrigue do not usually appear together on cards, this is improbable to the point of impossibility, even in the face of soft or even inept opposition.

As a result, I’ll be ditching this rule entirely. If there is no Spy, there will be no bonus for having the most Intrigue (so gathering it was a waste) but there’s no overt penalty. I will also be removing the Secret cards that provided negative Intrigue and replace them with something else. I’m considering either a split VP/Intrigue card or a Secret card that provides a large Intrigue bonus (4 or so) if it is your only Intrigue-providing Secret.

Walsingham playtest report (optimism!)

Too many weeks after putting together the latest prototype, I finally got Walsingham playtested. I’ll confess that I had been procrastinating a little bit (pulling out Invasion instead, and so on) out of dread that it would fall as flat as last time. But I’m pleased that this playtest went well. I did a bit of tripping on the rules explanation, but I seem to have ripped out enough cruft that it flowed pretty well once we got rolling. The mood at the table seemed not super excited near the end, but, after it was over there was about 10 minutes of spontaneous discussion/arguing over who should have done what, who would have won, whether some elements weren’t worth enough points, etc.. That discussion was energetic, protracted, and not instigated by me (I was just taking notes) and it made me optimistic that at least the game was engaging and interesting. Here’s a rundown of my notes from both the game and follow discussion:

  • Both of the core mechanics–the auction and the secret agendas–were interesting, and they worked fairly well together.
  • The auction rule I used was the dollar auction from For Sale: you must bid higher than anyone else if you want to bid at all; you choose rewards in reverse order from drop order; non-winners pay only half of their bids, and lowest bidder pays nothing (and wins nothing but gets a $2 stipend instead). This worked well enough to be interesting but was very problematic when several players had enough for a bid but they were all edged out by one high bidder early in the turn order. Somehow, the bidding needs to allow players to enter a non-highest bid. I might end up choosing the system from Santiago that only goes once around the table, but you can make any non-duplicate bid.
  • The peeking mechanic (look at one of the target’s loyalty cards; the target doesn’t know which one was viewed) worked pretty well and there were an appropriate number of peeks in the deck to give interesting, but not complete, information.
  • The accusation mechanic (lowest showing Intrigue has to choose their accusation first) worked pretty well; I might need tokens for “successful accusation” to keep track of the points easier. The way it shook out in this game, one player went all-in and was pretty obviously the Spy (accused by everyone). I knew he was and vocally supported his accusations, and in the end, his Intrigue tied another player’s. Whew! I ruled that neither player had the most Intrigue, so neither the Spy’s auto-victory nor the VP bonus kicked in.
  • Apropos of this, I need to clarify all endgame ties, including who has to accuse first in case of tied Intrigue, which will probably happen a lot.
  • The cash allotment I went with was $15 at the beginning of the game, $10 after the first and second thirds of the game. The cash needs to be split up like this to prevent novices from blowing all their money early and being helpless the rest of the game. This kept the auctions interesting and nobody broke. It’s close enough, but I’ll need to recalibrate it if the number of rounds or the auction mechanism changes.
  • Speaking of the number of rounds, I actually only had the cards for a 4-player game. I had planned 12 rounds of 3 cards each, but went with 9 rounds of 4 cards each. (One player doesn’t get a card every round.) This duration actually seemed just right. I may be able to use the same number of cards for 4p, or maybe 9 rounds is the right length and I’ll just cut some of the cards out in 4p. (And add some more for 6p, which should work; I don’t think I’m going to try to shoehorn 3p in.)
  • The strongest disagreement in valuation was: how much VP should the player who prevents the Spy from winning get as a reward? It needs to be enough that this player has a chance to win and isn’t just “taking one for the team”; on the other hand, it needs to be small enough that you can’t win by ignoring VPs. I suspect the current value of 3 VP might not be enough. (The 2nd place player in this game had only 4 Intrigue, which was the same as the reckless Spy minus 4 accusations.) Brainstorm: This player gets 2/3 of their Intrigue as VP.
  • One of the minor mechanisms is that I have colored tiles with VPs and Intrigue on them that are part of the auctions; these colors tie into the Loyalty cards, and if your mix of tiles matches your mix of Loyalty cards, you get a VP bonus. The idea is to add some texture to the auctions and provide a little bit of information–is a player going for tiles that don’t seem to match their card you peeked at? Perhaps it’s a spy! The mechanism worked pretty well I think, but my explanation was very difficult, and because the cards are hidden, you can’t ask clarifying questions. I’m not sure what to do about this. One player suggested a cheat sheet/player aid. This seems reasonable, but I’ve still got my eye on the mechanic.
  • Minor notes: Find the colored meeples that I was planning to use for player/bid markers; indicate on the bidding track who pays what; assemble player aids.

Thanks to Nevin, Ed, Michelle, and Josh for playing my game!

Invasion + Badgerkastan Playtest Report

Good news for the blog: I’m back from a week-long vacation to beautiful, relaxing western New York.
Bad news for the blog: My sabbatical from work is over, so my days of daily blogging about games are over. Twice a week is my tentative goal.

I got to playtest both Invasion and Badgerkastan tonight. Invasion went very well. The new anti-kingmaker-problem mechanism I wrote about before came up and worked well. The player who first exceeded the VP threshold went on to win, although the margin was small; the game was exciting throughout and the player in last kept struggling for his own score. The playtest also brought up a few wording changes that need to be made to Gadget cards, and I might need to examine the costs of a few of the Gadget cards, but so far they all seem to be usually desirable. So congratulations to Michelle, and thanks to both Ed and Michelle for trying it out.

Badgerkastan worked better, but not great. The Despot starts off very powerful. Part of the problem is probably that I let the Despot start with all cards in play. Probably the Despot needs to start with fewer cards in play and the Fundamentalist needs to have a prescribed starting hand. It’s also clear to me now that the game lacks an arc. The Foreign Influence mechanism, which I hoped would lead to an unbalanced-seesaw, isn’t anywhere near powerful enough to actually matter right now, and I don’t think that just multiplying its effect by 2 or 3 would make the game interesting. I need to find some way for the nature of the game to change midway through; perhaps this could be done by slowly or quickly granting a different selection of cards to one side or the other. I am also starting to have doubts about the quick-turn structure of the game. Each turn feels very small and if you can’t do much, you feel pretty stuck. I don’t know whether I need to make turns “bigger” by letting you do more, or placing each turn into a bigger context somehow, or something else. Thanks to Ed for giving it a shot.

Invasion Playtest Report

Tonight was the first playtest of my post-Protospiel changes to Invasion. I was pleased that all the changes seemed to be more or less successful, although a few changes are in order.

  • The previous iteration had players choose any free region to place their Mothership in on the first round of the game. This iteration has each player choose a Portal card, which indicates a location for a mothership and two bonus ships. This narrows the choices and jump-starts the game, so I approve. This playtest version also granted some Energy based on the relative desirability of the Mothership spot. I will remove that as too complicated in the next iteration; any players sophisticated enough to care about the small difference will settle it through bidding.
  • The previous iteration used turn order cards 1-6, refreshed every turn, and used dice to distribute bonus Action Point chips between them. This iteration uses a small deck of turn order cards 1-16, some of which have bonus Action Points built in. This works well; it not only cuts down on the components but speeds the turn up slightly. Some of the cards gave bonus Energy in this iteration. That will change to a discount in Gadget cost to encourage using those and also to reduce the amount of component-shuffling.
  • I replaced the large and small washers that served as money with red and yellow plastic winks (transparent bingo chips). This worked great; players had no trouble remembering which was which, they look classier, and the game term “Energy” works much better than “Iron Points”. I replaced the pennies that indicated increased region value with small laminated paper chips with a “2” on them (the amount they increase the value by). This worked great except that they were too small, so I’ll print some slightly larger ones for the next iteration.
  • The big new change in this iteration is that the one-shot Technology cards, purchased in one turn from the deck and used later, were replaced by Gadget cards, which are refreshed at the start of the turn and are purchased and used immediately. They also have variable costs. This ended up working very well, infusing some more “action” into the game. However, some specific changes are in order:
    • Remove all the cards that don’t directly affect the board. One gained energy, one gained VP, neither led to an interesting situation or decision.
    • Rebalance card costs or effects to account for the fact that destroying or moving enemy ships is generally more powerful than moving or deploying friendly ships. (It lets you focus more strongly; it doesn’t lead to increased casualties; it makes it easier to lean on a leader.)
  • A secondary effect of the Gadget cards is that going earlier in turn order is now better than it used to be, because it gives a better choice of Gadget cards. I already accounted for this somewhat by reducing the spread of Action Points available between high- and low-numbered cards; I’ll keep an eye because if it makes the cards too equal, I’ll need to de-equalize them again to make bidding more interesting.
  • As the last player on the last turn, I found myself in a kingmaker situation: I could stop one of two opponents from winning, but not both. This is not ideal, and the possibility of such kingmaker situations is the worst problem that has plagued Invasion since its inception. I think the game is good enough to survive with this flaw, but I’d still like to see it resolved… somehow.

Thanks to Paul Jacobs, Eric Steiger, and Carla Schober for playing!