In which I report back on my trip uptown to meet some of the good folks of the NYC Boardgame Designers Playtest Group. So, what did I think of their games, and what did they think of mine? Read on!
Two weekends ago I had the opportunity to drop in on the regular meet-up of some boardgame designers in New York. Thanks guys for a very warm welcome! The group meet every month in New York, and this month the meeting was hosted by Mark Salzwedel of Strategic Space, whom I had met when last in town.
The first game on the table was Mike Keller’s Municipality, the development of which Mike has been discussing for a while on his blog, Game Designer Wannabe. It’s a tile-based, role-selection, city development game, with some interesting twists on some familiar mechanisms. Throughout the game you have to keep tight control two resources — money and political capital — and develop plots of land in the city to boost your own political popularity and population growth. The majority of each player’s final score is the multiple of these two metrics, so there is always an interesting tension between the two.
The game flowed and worked well, clearly having benefitted from many playlists and revisions. There was, for me, slightly too much bookwork to be done, especially when it came to calculating and managing the ‘star rating’ of each individual plot. The city is built from houses, offices, factories and parks, and the adjacency and connectivity of these features determine the rating of each plot. Mike had produced a perfectly workmanlike reference table, but I found it difficult to either decipher or intuit. I never managed to build my own rationale for how the locations of different features interplayed to produce each plot’s rating, and the layout and presentation of the reference table was something we all discussed after the game.
Plus — and I mention this purely in passing — I won: a victory mainly attributable to a single lucky building permit and a late surge in my population, which outweighed, in the final analysis, my below-average popularity. Overall, I congratulate Mike on crafting an elegant game system in which there was interest and interaction all the way through. Municipality has a good mix of mechanisms, and tempers its strategy with chance, and its tactics with choice. But did I feel I had truly done enough to earn my win? I’m not so sure. My opponents really did seem to have a better grip of how and when they needed to act to boost their standing — which is not so surprising since they had played the game before! — and yet I bested them by a comfortable margin.
As they say, it’s always better to be lucky than smart.
Next up was my own prototype, a reworking of my game Mosaic Romanum that I entered into the 2009 Hippodice competition, and which received an ‘honourable mention’ from the jury. This was the first time that this Mk II edition had been played, and although the core of the game functioned as expected, the extra bells and whistles I had added were a definite misfire.
Mike’s analysis in his own blog post about the playtest session is spot on. Giving players information about the future which is impossible to interpret is pointless and confusing. It is, to quote Shakespeare, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The game is and should be only one of tactical decisions, and layering on notionally strategic elements doesn’t change that, other than it obfuscate the game’s heart.
Essentially, I had solved the wrong problem, which is a fundamental error of any design process. You must be able to see the problems as they are, not as you would wish them to be, and then implement the solutions you need, not the ones you want.
In this regard the playtest was most illuminating and valuable. If the design was broken, it was principally because I had broken it, and done so quite deliberately. Since the playtest I have been rationalising the game in the hope of revealing something simpler, leaner and entirely tactical. And that quaint, Romanesque and really rather craven Eurogame theme is also being jettisoned. I think a more literal, practical and readable theme will help the game, although in truth it is barely deserving a theme at all.
I like the game, because I like tactical tile games, but is perhaps true that I have not yet fully understood exactly what the game is or should be about. With a luck (rather than smarts!) I may yet succeed.
Next up was Gil Hova’s MacGuffin Market, a curious little beast of an auction game. You can read some of Gil’s own game development thoughts on this and other games over at his blog Fail Better.
Gil set the game up and, after barely a glance it seemed, Mike declared the game effectively ‘broken’ because of the maths involved in the auction, and the relative values of the game’s two currencies. And he may very well have been correct — he certainly went on to win very confidently! — but I was too bewildered by the game to tell.
Auctions are, without question, my least favourite game mechanic, principally because to play effectively you must be able to judge not only an item’s worth to you, but also to other players, and then be able to make an intelligent judgement based on those relative worths. This, in short, I cannot do, and hence I generally find auction games bewilderingly frustrating; and I’m a smart guy, you understand, with two maths A Levels and a science degree from one of the world’s top universities. It seems a decent education is neither necessary nor sufficient in these circumstances.
My problem with Gil’s game, and this was echoed by some of the other competitors, was that the game, rather like my own prototype, presented the players with information that was impossible to interpret. There is, however, an important difference: in my own game the information, though readable, could simply not be used to predict future outcomes, so may as well have been missing entirely. Strip it away and the game survives, reduced to it’s tactical core (whether or not that core is a successful game is another matter). In MacGuffin Market, by contrast, the information is the game; remove it and there is nothing left. Since I couldn’t interpret the information, I simply could’t interpret the game at all.
This may sound like harsh criticism, but I think the game is fixable, and so did everyone else round the table. Even though I don’t like auction games, I can see that Gil’s neat auction mechanic has potential. I think there is a tight, innovative auction game in there somewhere, trying to make itself seen and heard. Hopefully Gil can work to reveal it! MacGuffin Market may never become a game I would enjoy, but I’m sure there is an army of gamers out there who would.
Last up was Dan Cassar’s Arboretum, a very young prototype that Dan had simply and cleverly crafted from an unadulterated pack of regular playing cards. Although the prototype used cards, the game was essentially a tactical tile game which, as I have said, is a class of games I naturally enjoy.
For me this was perhaps the most successful game of the afternoon. There was something distinctly Knizia-esque in the simplicity of the idea, and the way in which the hand-management created some agonising choices. (And, in case there is any doubt, I am using ‘Knizia-esque’ as a definite compliment!)
We playtesters voiced a few relatively minor mechanistic concerns, and I was particularly exercised by the seemingly counter-intuitive way in which scores were accounted for. It seemed to me that there was a mental disconnect between Dan’s proposed scoring procedure and the procedure most players might naturally expect. Note that I cannot truly speak for ‘most players’, even though I can freely speculate about them!
I had a couple more concerns after the event (and admittedly only after one play). First, that the winning strategy might be too scripted (Mark’s approach seemed a far better bet than mine); and second, that the game was too limited by the size of the deck for the more interesting situations and choices to develop fully.
Clearly the second concern, if accurate, is easy to fix, but I am less sure about the first. Only time — and plenty more playtests! — will tell, and I wish Dan well with his elegant and pleasing design.
I had a great time with Mark, Mike, Gil and Dan, and am extremely grateful for their hospitality and welcome, and their openness in discussing all the designs. The opinions and reactions of other designers are incredibly valuable and revealing and I came away from the meet, and from New York itself, with new insight about both my own designs and game design in general. Great stuff!