February 29, 2012

Fifth Test for Abby

Testing Poor Abby has presented me with many lessons. Some I've learned, forgotten, and now must relearn, others I'm learning for the first time.

Make sure features present a clear value to the player
I keep trying to add another layer to the game for the sake of gameplay depth and differentiation. These layers keep failing. Last night's test revealed that the Jury Tampering ability was neat on the surface but was entirely irrelevant. Neither one of us used a single ability once for a few reasons.
  • The benefit for using the ability was always too subtle. It's key to make a feature's value to the player overt and mostly clear.
  • Using the abilities was too complex. There were 5 icons and they were easily forgotten. I can only imagine how difficult it is to learn a game like Race for the Galaxy which has far more icons.
  • The abilities didn't work within the flow of the game. I basically designed a benefit for permanent area control when control of a juror is often temporary or tenuous at best.
Card games need useful card
Another lesson, which I knew, but is always coming back to me, is that it's important in a card game to make every card valuable most of the time. Over its life cycle I cut and tweaked many cards from Farmageddon because their use was too limited or required too many pieces to come together. Last night playing Poor Abby, there were several cases where neither of us a.) wanted the cards present or b.) knew the value of the cards present. (Fun Fact: I designed the game and this was still a problem!)

We laid out all 60 cards and went through each of them.

What we discovered during the examination was that:
  • I had many sets of virtually identical cards. They either did the same thing (verbatim text) or essentially did the same thing.
  • Some of the mostly identical cards were clearly weaker than their nearly identical counterpart. Who would ever choose that one? And was the weaker aspect interesting? Often times, no.
  • Many of the cards didn't work with the flow of the game. It was fairly obvious when took a step back right after playing the game. And what I failed to see, my friend made painfully obvious with his comments. 
In a deckbuilder, someone is permanently (usually) adding a card to their deck. If it's going to ultimately make a deck less efficient (more cards reduce efficiency), the card needs to present a clear and useful value to the player and his strategy.

Imagine that?

Cumbersome Card Design
Another key concept is to be sure to not create cards that force the player to remember something throughout his turn.Here is a good and a bad example.

Bad: Play this card. If this condition is met during the turn, you can do this thing.

This is bad because the player actually doesn't do anything when the card is played. He must play the card, then track whether he does the thing or not. You never want the player to forget to take the action they've earned. Don't set them up to fail with cumbersome things.

Better: If this condition is met when this card is played, do this thing.

Now, the player knows to set up the condition before playing the card. 

In some cases it's relatively easy to reword the card or massage the design a bit to make it work nicely with the flow of the game. Other times, you must cut the card and move on.

Scoring versus deckbuilding? 
One other thing I noticed while playing last night is that there was an awkward choice between building your deck or scoring points. It wasn't a good choice or an interesting choice, but an awkward one. Currently, scoring and obtaining cards are built into a similar mechanic. This is largely good because the game is streamlined. But, it means players are often trying to score with a bad deck because they don't want to choose deckbuilding over a scoring opportunity. I have some ideas on how to resolve this.

Some Good News!
Fighting over jurors was fun. Removing prices streamlines the game and creates an interesting dynamic element. Increasing the basic value of Influence you must obtain makes it more valuable and makes the game more exciting as the Influence amounts escalate. Some of the cards did work and some interesting combos were pulled off. The game is getting easier to explain and makes more sense. Removing the dice seems to have been a good move.

Changes for Poor Abby
  • Remove Jury Tampering feature. Cut. Dead. Gone. Done
  • Streamline player turns from four steps to three:
    • Score
    • Play Cards
    • Discard and Draw
  • Deck has been refined down to about 40 cards. This doesn't seem like many, but this is a 2 player game and I can always add new ones. I feel the current 40 cards all add value.
  • Remove Argument cards from starting deck. They are now something you must acquire.
    • When do you want to acquire them?
    • Which ones do you wish to acquire?
  • Introduce the concept of game Rounds/Phases. There will be two. This is to address the buy versus score problem. This also returns to one of the earlier ideas I had for the game, but now with the current game's structure and format. 
    • The initial phase is about acquiring cards, i.e. thematically "building your case." This will focus on witnesses and gaining cards.
    • The second and final phase will be about delivering your arguments, scoring, and using the strategy you built in the first phase. Instead of witnesses, it'll focus on Jurors. 
    • Both phases will use similar game flows.
    • During the first phase, the Witness side of a card will be revealed. In the second phase, the cards will be flipped over to reveal the Juror side. 
  • I need to design something to make Jurors and Witnesses interesting and valuable. I strongly feel the game needs another layer. I just don't know what or how to do it. 
    • I think it needs to be something so simple it can be conveyed with an icon. Forcing players to read text on cards they want for their deck AND Jurors is too much. If players know the value of the object at a glance, that's good.
    • I think there need to be at most 2-3 Icons with abilities. There are only so many variables people are comfortable processing. I'm not building a 7 hour epic here. Also, keep in mind tht there are 5 Jurors out. 
  • I need to think about ways to improve the game's layout on the table.
    • One idea is to give the player a card to play to denote control over a juror. This eliminates the need to move cards around. I can just play a card with my color or symbol to denote "boom, I control this juror."
I need to think and design a bit before I'm ready to write and post new rules. If you have questions or thoughts on the test and changes please post them on Comments. Thanks!

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