Updates After Protospiel Online (April 2022 Edition)
This weekend I attended Protospiel Online for the second time. Once again I brought my game A Taste for the King but unlike last time, this version was under-tested. The new version included the 3rd iteration of the wagers mechanic as well as extra poisons (one a double poison) and 3 negative actions that either hinder everyone or hurt the player at the benefit of others.
In early tests people had registered some concerns about wagers, that they weren’t needed and didn’t work how I wanted. While I had similar reservations I felt I needed a wider sampling size to make sure.
The first thing I did, while I made sure everything I’d prepared was working as intended, was to sit in on the coffee-talk channel. There Jay Little, a game designer and lecturer, was giving a talk about the “why of your game design”, imposter syndrome and more. One part that struck particularly interesting was his description of the vision statement for your game. My understanding of the concept is you describe what you want your game to be (in writing). You then write 3-4 parts of the game that are immutable, as in they should not change through the development process if at all possible. This doesn’t mean being rigid with your design but I think the idea is it gives you a general mould from which to shape your game, using playtest feedback as the tools to adjust the shape without it completely changing. I found this very useful going into the first playtest (and the rest of the weekend) and I will try to keep it in mind for all future games and playtesting sessions. I do feel this is something I do a little bit intrinsically but having a solid concept behind it will help stick to the idea.
The first playtest of the weekend went well, I received much generous feedback from 4 players who overall liked the theme but didn’t like the wagers as they only increase time at the start and end of a turn but don’t really increase engagement during the turn. One player mentioned being very grateful that they hadn’t been playing with more people which, based on the flow of the conversation, I took to mean largely because of wagers. It felt a little unclear at this point whether the negative action cards worked as intended or were a hinderance.
One idea which had been pitched to me before in mid stage playtesting, that I was somewhat against, was to have some indicator on the back of the card to give some choice as to whether to discard a card or not. I was partly against this as it felt less push your luck and I couldn’t really think of a thematic reason for this (besides doing it based on course which would mess with the balance of the poisons, actions and dishes). Given how much the game has been tweaked since then I felt it would be OK to try now.
Option one was to have a traffic light system to indicate safety, risky, riskier, ramping up the negative actions and poisons in the harder two. Option two was to have a traffic light system with a sort of anonymous fourth back. Thematically I was thinking the markers on the back would be shields, each from one of the 3 warring factions, perhaps saying that all the players would be related in some way through the houses. The green shield would be for the trustworthy House of <Fred> who are generally good, have little ambition and so only poison a little, in a shiftless kind of half-hearted effort. The yellow shield would be for the House of <Gerald>, who while ambitious are somewhat just and will only do harm if they feel it is right. The red shield would be for House <Percy> who are just the worst, they will stop at nothing to control the lands. And thematically I thought it might make sense to have the unidentified cards be for a neutral third party, maybe some secret organisation trying to control the in-fighting without specifically ruling. (The names are article placeholders, I hadn’t got that far thematically.)
At the end of the day, having playtested an escape room game that was great fun, I set about trying to add indicators to the game.
The second playtest for the weekend included all the cards, now marked with one of the three shields, disguising poisons and negative action cards, I removed wagers from the game. In this playtest I found that negative actions didn’t really have the intended effect (even more obvious than in the previous playtest probably due to the lack of wagers), again just serving to slow the game down by making it too hard to complete a menu. I decided to end the game early as people just weren’t progressing as I hoped. This despite an early discovery that gave players a lot of scored cards in their first or second turn. The strategy involves realising there is only one poison in the green cards. If you draw just green cards and stop on revealing the poison you are safe for the first turn or two. This was somewhat unintended and and could only be fixed by adding a second poison to the easy (green) cards, thus relying only on the negative action cards (and Deadly Concoction) to make the different coloured cards harder. This was quite a problem as feedback from this session suggested Deadly Concoction made the core loop of the game a little pointless and less towards my original vision for the game (this is pretty true as it was originally designed as an expansion card that would change the game quite a bit).
One piece of feedback was to try and change the indicator to courses, hiding the poisons and the actions in each course. This would also possibly allow for the game to be based on the courses in order, ending after the last course (Appetisers, Mains, Sides, Desserts, Drinks). This would put a hard cap on the game lasting a maximum of 5 rounds (something I had previously hoped to do as part of an expansion). Now, given that most games last just 3-5 rounds anyway (at least until I added the negative action cards) this didn’t seem especially necessary but I don’t think it really hurts to have it in the game.
An additional idea would be that if players score/finish the correct course at the right time, they would gain some bonus to speed up the game (or hinder others in the game). This is an interesting idea but I didn’t have time to implement something before day 3.
One thing I liked with this session, despite the disappointment with how broken the game was, was that I finally got to see the interaction between Belladonna and Amanita. Amanita was originally going to be an expansion card that would be cured by revealing Belladonna
At the end of the day, I once again set about quickly updating the game, this time removing the negative action cards from the deck and replacing Deadly Concoction (the double poison card) with a 6th single poison (Hemlock).
This day I managed to play another 3 games. The first was a social deduction game for kids, the second was a co-op game against Yokai (that I had the pleasure to test at Break My Game just a couple of days prior) and the last was a very simple yet effective hand management set collection game in very early prototyping stages.
I wanted to keep the playtest for this day short, partly because I was running out of time to make back playtest time for other games (the event has a golden rule of trying to play at least as long in other games as in your own) and partly because I felt I could gauge the effect on the game from just a couple of rounds. I asked for two players plus myself and I have to say I feel like the changes were generally a big step in the right direction.
We tried the game with an additional rule which had been suggested on day two. Players can choose to “steal” a dish anytime one is discarded. They keep the card(s) face down until the end of the turn and then flip them while the current player is scoring their dishes. Any with poisons don’t get anything, anyone else can score ONE of their cards. I feel like this had the intended effect. It allowed players out of turn to keep engaged and served to potentially speed up collection of dishes over the course of the entire game.
The main concern expressed with the current iteration is that it will be unfair in favour of people with good memories who can remember which poisons are in which course, thus rendering Secret Message possibly a little broken. I have an idea to address this using some of the spare part count. Perhaps the game has some duplicate poisons with different course backings and at the start of the round the poison cards are removed, shuffled and then 6 are chosen at random before being shuffled into the main deck. This would prevent people being able to as easily remember which poison is going into the Secret Message hands.
An alternative solution suggested was perhaps to allow the secret message holder the chance to mark a dish/course in secret and then when that dish appears to strike it down with poison! I like this idea but it might be hard to keep the information secret without accidentally wiping it off.
One thing that had been suggested between sessions, in discussion about the feedback with friends, is to maybe have any spare cards from the component count (8-12 cards) become a “proclamation” deck. If a player draws a specific action card (or once per round) a card is drawn from the deck that has either a positive or negative consequence, like a global modifier or one that affects certain players. When the deck runs out, this would end the game. If it is draw based, this could see the game last only one to two rounds if EVERYONE drew the card or last the normal amount of time if it was always discarded. If round based, this would make the game have a hard cap on rounds of 7-8. I like this idea but I’m struggling to see what the cards would be. I think I will be investigating this in the near future. An initial thought might be that the host says a specific dish is spoiled for the round and must be discarded, thus locking certain players with that dish on their menu card from winning that round. I think perhaps it would still be OK to steal that dish with Distraction as it was scored before the proclamation and is therefore still safe.
If I could implement this deck successfully, keeping the course based round timer and the ultimate win condition of completed menus, this would allow for three exits to the game and hopefully increase engagement and speed up the game.
Thematically I was thinking a neutral(ish) third party such as the church would be hosting the peace talks, sending the archbishop to officiate. One playtester pointed out that the game is currently very patriarchy heavy (by design for historical accuracy) and that it might be nice to inject at least one female character into the game if possible, suggesting maybe the host of the feast could be the Queen Mother, in charge of trying to control her unruly children and nephews to find a successor and unite the lands once more. I like this thematically and I will look at making this part of the backstory.
Day three saw me play a whopping 6 more games. The first was a fantastic dice movement strategy puzzle game. While I wasn’t very good at it (I feel I would have done better if it was a solo app-based puzzle game) I admired the simplicity and engaging puzzle structure.
The second was a very engaging strategy lane control game that I juuuust lost. I then went into a game against the designer of the previous game as we were pitted against each other in a crazy game of super-advanced tic-tac-toe.
The third was a heavily themed co-op tile placement game that I enjoyed very much. I liked the structure of the co-operative turns as it felt like it mitigated the alpha gamer problem with a lot of co-op games (unless I was the alpha gamer and I didn’t notice, but i don’t think so).
Next up was a collect and deliver game that I had no chance in but it was quite enjoyable and I think it will do well.
Finally, I played a cubes on a map game which, either due to it being very late (it was past sunrise when we finished playing) or just because I couldn’t quite grasp it, I struggled to play, however I did very much enjoy it and I feel like I started to pick up the strategy after a few rounds. I hope to give this one another go when I’m fresh and if the designer brings it to the event again I will try to make sure it’s one of the first I play.
Bonus – Break My Game
To prepare for the weekend I took the game to Break My Game a couple of days prior. This proved invaluable as I had forgotten quite a bit about how to control/edit things in Screentop since tweaking the prototype a few weeks prior (I have been working on marketing things in the run up to Protospiel). I had a lovely time testing my game with Chad and Tim. I received some feedback that I would like to play with, which was to allow people to trade in dishes from one course for another dish to help with the endgame, for example if you have three desserts on the table and none are the one you need, discard and score the one you need. I would like to test the new mechanics from the weekend first to see if this is needed, while I like the idea and see that it could help a lot, it feels very out of theme as you’d essentially be bypassing all poison checks. I guess you could draw the next card and see if it is a poison but this would then break the draw 3 cards loop. Maybe you draw the next hand and if there is a poison you don’t score the traded dish but this feels like a hack on the mechanics rather than a core part.
One thing that keeps coming up is that the actions are very fun and that I should add more. This is something that I would like to do, however every time I try, they seem to break or slow down the game. Without adding more cards to balance this, I’m not sure how I would do it. This would also increase component count and probably serve to slow the game down even more. While slowing the game down if it becomes more fun is definitely OK, I had always intended this game to be quite lightweight and fast.
Overall I’m quite pleased with the state of the game after this mammoth playtesting weekend.
I managed to play 10 other games this weekend and I can’t think of a single one I didn’t love conceptually, even if I wasn’t good at the game or if they were still a little unpolished and likely to change a lot. I hope I provided valuable feedback to all, however I am concerned that I didn’t help much with the last playtest of the weekend that started at 3AM and finished after 5. I’m looking forward to seeing how they all progress.
If you would like to follow development of the game or even arrange a playtest, feel free to join the Drentsoft Games Discord server.
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