July 12, 2010

Space Encounters: Board Game Design Part 3

A recent addition to the marketing team at work just so happens to be a 10 year veteran of a board game company. Kyle has had a hand in a lot of really good games and by the look of the collection on his desk, a lot of games I'm dying to play.

I cannot stress how awesome it was to play and discuss my game Space Encounters! with him over the course of an hour. It was also a very cool thing for him to do that I appreciate immensely.

I've put my game in front of quite a few people that tend to fall into two groups of players:

  1. The "min/max" hardcore gamers who analyze every rule and every card for exploits and loopholes and advantage
  2. The laid back folks who forgo good strategy to get back at their nemesis at the table. 
I really prefer the second group, both as a player and someone gathering feedback, because I feel the second group is a better representation of that "family and friends" tabletop experience I love. Few things in life top a narrow victory over a sibling.

I felt like Kyle played like the second group, but with a really high-quality design perspective that focused more on the "fun and feeling" of a board game over the "numbers and guts." Perhaps emotion vs. mechanics is a better description? I'll explain.

Turn Phase
I've always resisted the notion of putting strict "turn phases" into my game. I wanted players to have the flexibility to do things however they desired during their turn. In every single focus test this led to confusion. I knew it wasn't working but I've been stubborn (which is odd because I've thrown out almost everything else that didn't work). Kyle put it into perspective --

"Choice is good and is what makes a game a game. But too much choice is detrimental to the experience." 

He referenced a popular board game that has a huge battlefield with tons of units. However, players can only play a single card (from a hand of 4 cards) every turn. This condenses what seems like a really complex and overwhelming game into something that's entirely manageable. 

This weekend I finally put in phases for my game: 
  1. Payment
  2. Planetary Management
  3. Action
  4. Discard
My rules were immediately simpler, easier to learn, and I know that my next playtest will be the first in which I don't have to answer the question "when can I buy upgrades?"

The Dice
"I love rolling dice!" exclaimed Kyle. 

It's a pretty accurate sentiment. It's fun to roll the dice and hope for a 6 (unless you're a nerd and are rolling a D20, at which point a 6 is paltry). My game has very few dice rolls. I did this because I wanted the focus on player decisions and not randomness, but I cannot help but think I've rolled away a bit of the fun. I think there's room for one more dice roll in my Space Encounters! design, but I think the big takeaway here is to not discount how fun it is for my next game.

Information Access
I've done a few things to make it easier to tally things with my game, but there are still a few too many numbers. Credit payment, the number of victory points, how many Fuel Cells you earn -- it just slows down the game counting these every turn.

Kyle suggested I make a board for each player that is just a tally of these things -- a cheat sheet. It serves two purposes: Players can easily store and update how many Credits/Fuel Cells/Victory Points they'll earn by moving the token along pre-set values. Secondly, other players can immediately see at a glance what their opponents have. 

It's such a good and obvious idea I'm sad that I didn't think of it myself.

Stuff is Fun!
Buying hotels in Monopoly or placing a fat stack of infantry in Axis & Allies are supremely satisfying activities. I've always wanted to have plastic pieces to denote planetary upgrades, cooler space ship tokens, and nifty planetary ownership tokens. Kyle affirmed this.Now I just need to obtain a factory contact in China to manufacture these pieces...

The end goal is that players can look onto the board and feel pride as they examine their space empire. Plus, other players can eyeball their opponent's planetary holdings as well.

The More the Merrier
I've always known I needed to ultimately support a wider range of players than just 4. Kyle really drove the point home that even if the game is best with 4, I need to make it possible for 2, 3, or 4 to play. The reality is that getting 4 people together is rarely likely, whereas having 2 people is fairly simple. As odd as it sounds, allowing fewer players to play means more people will ultimately play.

Luckily, I believe my rules scale decently enough to support this. I am going to increase the rate of Fuel Cell gain, increase the number of starting special planets, and decrease the number of Victory Points needed to win for 2 player games.

Learning the Rules
"Most players don't read a manual. Most players learn the game from their friends." 

I think this is something all of us know because it's just absolutely true, but it's not something I had consciously considered before now. I've been trying to streamline my rules since the first day of my design. I've re-written every piece of text in the manual and on game cards at least 15 times each. 

However, I've never done so with the looming reality that people may ignore my game entirely if the rules take too long to read. I found that introducing turn phases allowed me to condense huge portions of my rules to mere sentences. In other cases I was able to throw out superfluous content entirely.

What's next?
I feel that Space Encounters! is more or less finished. It's pretty fun, balanced, and does a lot of neat things. It accomplishes my original goals of being a space game that is accessible and focuses heavily on screwing over your opponents. 

It is by no means perfect. As my play tests have shown (and Kyle noted), my game is at times far too broad but not deep enough. Players travel, buy planets, upgrade planets, use Space Encounter cards, summon pirate attacks -- there is a lot going on! For my next game I plan to have fewer things going on, but with these fewer things I intend to put in more depth. It's the classic game design quandary of Breadth vs. Depth. 

I also want to have fewer rules. I want the concept to be quickly explained. This is really hard to do, but I think it's a goal for which I should always strive. 

I want less number crunching. I also want the game to be less based on cards, which are also random, and shift the focus to 2 or 3 player decisions gated by a dice roll.

Finally, I want to try my hand at a more cooperative game experience. 

The two concepts I'm brainstorming right now are called "Coup" and "Ah! Dragons!" I'm excited. Coup is entirely inspired by the Radiohead lyric "When I am king, you will be first against the wall."

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