BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Playtesting: Landscapes, London and Laundry

Yesterday I had the honour and privilege of attending the playtest group organised by Rob Harris (@playtestuk) in the unassuming corner of a London pub borrowed from the London on Board crew. Rob and I were joined by Jonathan (@joffwarren), Chris and Brian, and after drinks, a light lunch and some introductory banter, we got down to business.

And first to the table was my own prototype Mēxihco, the new take on my old tile-laying game Terraform, now with added LEGO. The game does take rather longer to fully explain than I would like, and it’s not a game that lends itself very well to a ‘learn as you go’ approach so start-up time is relatively long for new players. But since this was the beginning of the session Rob, Chris and Jonathan were alert and patient and took in most of the rules (at least the ones I actually remembered to explain!) with sage nods.

Prototype snapshot: Mexihco - Example tile layout

The game mixes card drafting with tile laying and area control, so is likely to seem relatively familiar to the average eurogamer in terms of structure and mechanisms. This means that most players will come to it with a number of expectations mapped from other games, and it’s only, of course, where these expectations conflict with the game that things can get tricky.

However, overall the playtest was a success and I think everyone enjoyed the game, but that’s not to say there weren’t plenty of interesting wrinkles and keenly made observations from the playtesters. Was the set-up a little too fiddly? How necessary was the split of the tiles into two phases? Could the card drafting be made less frustrating? Can you clarify the scoring — for example with a player aid — please? Should the variable game-end timing be made, well, less variable? And finally, why did the game forbid the player from taking (apparently) reasonable actions?

That last one, for me, was the most interesting, although the others are certainly no less important. Players lay tiles to create and expand territory, but can also (in certain circumstances) overlay tiles, meaning that territories once created are not necessarily immutable. Players can (again, in certain circumstances) protect some of their territory, but in doing that territory becomes ‘locked down’ and, in the words of the rules, “cannot be enlarged or reduced by any player”.

I thought my rules were clear, and that they accurately reflected both the law and the spirit of the game. But — rather excellently — Chris was, in one turn, in a position where two apparently possible and equally desirable moves directly challenged both of these concepts. My intent, in formulating the game, was to render a protected territory inviolate. Players are able to choose to protect their territories and stop others from interfering with it, but the ‘cost’ of this choice is that any further expansion is explicitly forbidden. Hence the phrase “cannot be enlarged or reduced”. That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Well, as it turns out, not so much. Or rather, it is a clear instruction, but it is not one that completely describes the intended limitation. There is a loophole! At the end of my post Game Spaces: Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory, I explained the nature of loopholes as follows:

In this case the possibility of moving outside of the game space is neither explicitly forbidden nor allowed, rather the rules have created a ‘grey area’, a crack in the boundary drawn by the rules through which players can choose to play. Often players themselves will veto expanding the play space in this way by reasoning that to do so would break the ‘spirit of the game’, but there will always be others who seize the opportunity and point out, correctly, that no rule forbids it.

What is the loophole? You may be ahead of my here, but saying that a territory “cannot be enlarged or reduced” says nothing about the legality of an action that leaves its area unchanged. And, as it happens, there are very good reasons why a player might seek to do this and Chris quite rightly asked why he shouldn’t be allowed to. Much discussion ensued!

At the same time — in the very same turn — another possible move highlighted how explicitly preventing “any player” from enlarging or reducing a protected territory, though unambiguous, directly challenged the spirit of the game intuited by the players.

The intent of the rule was to draw a very clear line around these inviolate territories, and everyone accepted that it did indeed make perfect sense that expanding your own protected territories ought to be forbidden. But what about expanding a protected territory belonging to another player? Did it make sense to forbid this when there could be circumstances — as aptly demonstrated by Chris — when to do so was the consequence of an entirely reasonable and desirable move? Much discussion ensued about this one, too!

Chris’s turn, which probably created a 15-minute hiatus in the game while all the options, expectations and ramifications were closely scrutinised, only goes to show how difficult it is to create truly bullet-proof rules and why, as a designer, you need to take into account not just what your players can and cannot do, but also what they would, all things considered, wish to do.

All games might be said to set up a series of playful obstacles for the participants to overcome. Rules codify these obstacles, and are therefore primarily designed to stop players doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want to. When people choose to play they enter into a contract: they agree to play their game by your rules. And I think the designer has an absolute duty to make a fair bargain in return: to respect and reward the player’s faith in your game by demonstrating more than a little faith in your players.

And so, when Chris challenged my game — challenged me, indeed — to defend the logic of its internal law I found that I could not, in all good conscience, do so. I could not wag my finger and deny his entirely reasonable and reasoned request, and so we agreed that the move — which safeguarded his own territory while expanding Jonathan’s — should in fact be allowed and played on.

The game ended with a surprisingly close win for Rob: 26–25–25–23, and the dissection of its vices and virtues continued. Exactly how variable the variable timing of the end of the game should be, and what mechanism should be used to achieve it, remains an open question. My first playtest last week resulted in a 400-to-1 ‘play till the bitter end’ result; yesterday’s was a more modest 7-to-1 result in the other direction that led to a shorter-than-average game. But was it too short? That was the question! I need to go back to the maths on this one and make sure I really do know what I am letting myself (and my players) in for. Personally, I don’t mind the idea of unpredictability, but I appreciate that it won’t be to every player’s taste.

I won’t dissect the other games we played in quite so much detail (you will probably be relieved to hear), but next up was Rob’s London Game, which I have played before and which, delightfully, continues to defy obvious categorization. Is it a deduction game? Possibly. Is it a casual or gamer’s game? Both. Are there meaningful strategies? Perhaps. If so, what are they? Ah, well, now you’ve got me! Is it, in the final analysis, even a game? Yes. And possibly no, depending on what you mean.

You see, it really is the most mercurial of animals! We played twice. And I won twice. But I couldn’t tell afterwards if I’d played the game, or if it had played me. Don’t get me wrong: I like it, as did the others, but exactly what ‘it’ is remains shrouded in mystery.

Finally — provided, that is, we don’t count my other prototype, Rumba, and I would prefer not to — we played a round of Hung Out To Dry, a prototype designed by Jonathan in collaboration with his trans-Atlantic design partner Rebekah Bissell. This was a very neat and nicely thematic set-collecting card game, designed for children and families. We all enjoyed it, but agreed that it was over a little too quickly with four players. Jonathan already knew this, and Rob confirmed that in with two or three players the game allowed more time for the more interesting aspects of the game to emerge. There was a lot to like about the game’s theme and colourful artwork which will both definitely appeal to children, so I wish Jonathan and Rebekah all the best with the game’s continued development.

I did get Rumba to table, but it was a rather inglorious and disappointing experience which I, Rob and latecomer David endured rather than actually played. Somewhere this design has got lost, and every attempt to take it forward has failed (yesterday was no exception). It’s not that there’s nothing there, it’s just that I haven’t figured out what it is yet. The latest prototype was just too fiddly and ungainly and inescapably dull. There’s too much of it, and it collectively delivers far too little. Less said the better, to be honest.

Does any of that sound like fun? (Apart from the last bit.) If so, and you are either a game designer with a prototype in need of playtesting, or a gamer willing to suffer the slings, arrows and outrageous fortunes of unfinished and thoroughly rough-around-the-edges gaming experiences, do keep an eye on Rob’s website for details of future get-togethers and feel free to come along.

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