Earlier this week I got the prototype for new territorial city-building game Angkor Thom to the table for the third time. On the first and second outings, we’d played the game for maybe as long as 45 minutes, but had then all agreed, politely, to abort.
Those first playtest revealed several key shortcoming, and was rightly ended prematurely. The second, which made some big changes, would simply have taken far too long to reach its conclusion: there was far too much for the players to do before they game could reward them. If we’d had the patience to finish either of them, it would have been a very hard slog.
Third time lucky, you might say: I’d made some more big changes to the game: streamlining the player actions and speeding up the choice. I still didn’t have much comprehension for how the game would feel if we ever got to the end, and I fully expected at the start of the playtest that we probably wouldn’t find out.
Although we all fumbled around at the beginning, forgetting and remembering rules and not quite being able to see where the game was headed, the pieces started to fit. And it was simply good fortune that when the time came for us to agree either to stop mid-game — to abort, discuss, and then move on to other prototypes — that we had actually made it to a point that felt like a mid-game, a second act. This meant we had begun to see further ahead, and that we all wanted to discover what the third act would deliver. We girded our gamer loins, and played on.
And we made it! And far from losing steam towards the end, the game picked up, pulling us towards a conclusion in which we were all very invested.
What’s interesting to reflect upon is this: that if we’d stopped in the middle, which is so often the fate for young prototypes, my conclusions about what was worked and what didn’t would have been very different.
All games impose restrictions on their players, and although I may not be the most doctrinaire of designers — favouring freedoms over limitations — the early game seemed to be telling me to be even more free than I had been.
Player freedoms are attractive, but they will amplify choice, and more choice means more time. And Angkor Thom is still too long. It seems obvious that you won’t be able to tell how long a game takes unless you get to the end, but I think it bares repeating.
And there’s also value in observing that, unless you push through with a playtest, and begin to interrogate the further reaches of your game, you won’t know how early decisions can impact the game later on. This, dear reader, is what people call strategy.
All my design instincts tend towards the tactical, so I was more surprised than anyone to discover that, in the third act, my early choices were coming back to bite me. Every turn and every action is deliberately discrete, and yet the sum of these simple, singular actions turned out to be something greater. The game had, much to my delight, some genuinely emergent characteristics.
So the playtest represented several big successes, the biggest of which was simply that it actually managed to stop at the right time.