Board game design, Los Buenos, Personal, Play-testing

The current state of the game
Yesterday I spent a good number of exciting and exhausting hours playtesting Los Buenos at “Spellenspektakel”, a board games conference in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

In this post I’ll give my observations about going to a conference in general and what lessons I have to make my next time even more productive.

Preparation

Before going to the conference I created a nice prototype of Los Buenos, with significantly upgraded graphics. This meant a lot of work in the previous weeks to get all of that ready, including a high-intensity printing-and-cutting session the evening before. The upgraded graphics seem to have worked; previously I would get comments on the “simple” graphics, while now I did not hear anything negative about the look of the components.

Lesson for next time: Make sure I have at least decent graphics for the game.

I also created some feedback forms, for people to fill out after the game. These had fairly general questions (“What was the best moment in the game?”, “What element would you remove from the game?“), as well as asking for a score of the overall game and whether they would recommend the game to others.

The feedback form ensured that everybody gave feedback on the same things. This was good in that it was consistent, but it also meant that some subjects that were in fact important weren’t covered in the feedback forms. For example, I was quite interested in whether people felt any form of “scarcity” and specifically in what resources.

Lesson for next time: Also think about the more specific issues I have that I want to get some thoughts on.

Setting up

I arrived at the location in time to set up my game. I laid out the game, ready to play for 4 players. I believe that this created a nice overview and made it clear that there was something to be played here!

The table I got had 4 chairs. As Los Buenos plays 2 to 4 players I thought this would be perfect, but I was wrong… A group of 4 wanted to play, leaving myself without a place to sit. I was able to borrow a chair from another table, but they were a bit reluctant to let me have it. I was also somewhat in the way of the flow of the crowd, so this wasn’t an ideal situation.

I don’t know exactly what I could’ve done about this. I’m guessing the organization wouldn’t have been particularly responsive to me requesting an additional chair… I could’ve rented a second table, but that feels like overkill as well…

If the game played more than 4 I definitely would’ve been in trouble…

Lesson for next time: Keep in the back of my mind how many people I want to test with and whether that works.

Getting people to play

Just gather around and we’ll play!
I had asked on Twitter for some last-minute tips. One of them was to create a nice board with the title of the game, a tag-line, how many players can play, playing time and a short introduction. I chose sleep over making this and so I didn’t have it when I arrived, leaving me a bit nervous.

Some of the other stands had something like this, but most didn’t.

Testers were a bit secluded (on the upper “balcony”), meaning that it took a bit of time before people started filtering up.

I found it easy enough to get people to join my game. I spoke to groups of 2, 3 and 4 people (I was mostly interested in testing for 3 and 4 players), asking whether they were interested in playing a game. If they didn’t walk on immediately I gave a very short explanation of the theme of the game and what players would be doing, including the playing time (10 minutes per player). I emphasized what I think is the unique thing about the game, which is that you’re getting points (karma) for doing things that help your opponent.

If people were interested to play I’d have them sit down. If there were two of them I’d play the third player, for groups of 3 and 4 I let them play without me “interfering”.

Lesson for next time: Having a sign explaining your game isn’t necessary. Though if you dislike accosting strangers it might help to draw people in without having to cajole them.

Lesson for next time: Having a short explanation of the game really helps. I also think that the short playing time was a good way to pull people in. If I have a longer game next time I’ll have to give some thought on how to entice people to give up their valuable time.

Explaining the game

I hadn’t really thought too much about how to explain the game in advance. I did find I quickly got my rhythm there. So much so that people complimented me on my explanations!

I tried hard to emphasize consistencies in the game. For example: When you do anything that benefits your opponent you get at least one karma point. After doing that three times players would be able to fill in the gap themselves: “You place the money in the vault, which means that anybody can use it from there. What does that mean for you?” “I get a karma point!”

I also made connections to the real world where possible. “For example you can only start work on a building once you have the required materials for it, because in real life it doesn’t make sense to start hammering away if you don’t have the wood to hammer together”.

Lesson for next time: Point out consistencies within the game and with real life. It helps if the game designed specifically around those ideas of course 🙂

Lesson for next time: Think about how to explain my game a bit more in advance.

Playing the game

No actual dice involved in playing Los Buenos (though these are pretty cool!)
When playing I tried not to point out anything to the other players – no tips and tricks. When I was playing myself this was somehow a bit harder than when I was just on the sideline. I guess I was more involved when actually in the game?

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of other people’s thought processes even more. I want to see how they play the game, not how I play the game!

I did ensure that I pointed out any rule mistakes that players made. Testing whether rules are easy to remember is something I want to do, but not in these tests.

When it came to distributing resources, doing the end-of-round cleanup and setting up for the next round I tried to be as helpful as possible, mostly by doing as much of the work as possible. This ensured that the “bookkeeping” parts of the game flowed as smoothly as possible. This resulted in quick gameplay and (hopefully) more fun for my testers. It does mean I didn’t observe the “full” game as played by others. Were there mistakes in setting up or moving resources? Is that something I need to think about further?

Lesson for next time: Let players take a bigger part in “running” the game, so I can also observe whether anything can be improved there.

Obviously I have a lot more experience with this game than anybody else that came to the table. This means I could’ve beaten everybody, but I don’t believe that would’ve given them the best experience. Me being part of the game already skews results, but by playing at my best I believe they would’ve skewed even more. So, I played sub-optimally. Taking actions that were not the best, while not being obviously stupid either. I hope that this resulted in “reasonable” results.

Lesson for next time: Try to get more groups of 3 and 4 (or test my 2-player version) so that I can be on the sidelines more.

Getting feedback

During the game I tried to make notes on what was going on. Here I focused on some of the issues I had in my mind, like the scarcity of resources from turn to turn. I specifically noted when these got out of kilter – when there way too many or too few resources.

I also noted how people were playing: Intent on the game, or distracted (the first mostly).

And I wrote down any interesting quotes that people had during the game: “What am I to do?” “You should’ve helped me when you had the chance!”.

My feeling is that most quotes were positive, but that might just be projection. It’s hard to gauge exactly what internal processes are when someone says something. “What am I to do?“ can be out of frustration because there really isn’t anything interesting to do, or it can be a sign that there are multiple options that are equally tempting. The first is bad, the second is good. Paying attention to voice and body language then becomes important. Those are hard to capture just in the words though.

Lesson for next time: Put emojis with quotes, to get some idea of how people said it

Taking notes was much easier when I was not playing, so another reason to try to be outside of the playing group.

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of the playing my own game while testing.

Finally a lot is going on during play, meaning it’s hard to capture it all. Added to that is that my handwriting in the best of circumstances is poor – when writing quickly it becomes horrible.

Lesson for next time: Consider recording the tests – either video or audio

As mentioned I also got feedback through feedback forms. Everybody was happy to fill them in. I did feel a bit awkward in asking even more questions afterwards. I had some good discussions, but I’m sure I could’ve gotten even more out of it.

Lesson for next time: Push through my own awkwardness and ask more questions / feedback afterwards.

Taking care of myself

Because in some ways, a convention is similar to a desert…
Doing an entire day of testing is exhausting! The last test I wasn’t really paying that much attention anymore and I have basically no readable comments from it. Perhaps it would’ve been better stop before that?

Lesson for next time: Stop when drained. Pushing through doesn’t actually give a lot more useful information.

I was also lucky that I got a suggestion to bring snacks and drinks. Especially the big bottle of water was a blessing as I got very thirsty. And while I ate a bit, it felt very rushed, eager as I was to get into the next test. That might have had something to do with me losing energy as well.

Lesson for next time: Take the time to actually eat and drink properly.

After the event

Today I worked through all of my notes, writing everything out and collating the feedback forms. Next step is to draw conclusions and to think about what kind of experiments I want to run in next tests.

Picking this up quickly was good, as where my handwriting failed, memory sometimes still served to bring back what I had tried to write down. It’s also fresh so that I’m eager to get to work on a next prototype!

Lesson for next time: Schedule time very soon after such an event for writing everything out, so that I keep the momentum.

Closing thoughts

Going to the convention was a great experience! I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot! Looking back I think I did very well, but there are always some things that I could do even better. Now to remember to read back this post when I go to the next convention!

I also hope this has been useful to you as a reader, perhaps you picked up a few things you’ll change when you go to your first / next convention? If so I’d love to hear about it!

And perhaps you have further tips for me, so that I can do even better the next time?

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Los Buenos

A very early prototype
For longer than I’d really care to admit I’ve been working on my game: Los Buenos (previously called Voluntarios). The game is working well and the core mechanics are all fleshed out. The thing I’m now thinking about is what kind of content I’d like the game to have. Specifically, the game allows for different buildings to be built. What should these buildings do exactly?

A bit of background

As I’ll be using my own game-under-construction as an example, let me give a very quick introduction.

Players are trying to rebuild a village after an earthquake. And as it’s a tight-knit community, you’re not just in it for yourself, you’re trying to be helpful to the others. In fact, being helpful gives you karma points, which determine the winner of the game.

During your turn you will be placing workers to gather resources (construction material and money). Resources and workers are placed on construction sites, to construct the buildings depicted. The twist of the game is that placing your workers on someone else’s construction site gains you karma. The initiator of the construction however will get the benefits of the building (once it is finished).

My current dilemma: What should buildings do once they are finished?

Content – first thoughts

The easiest thing to do is to have buildings give karma as well. It makes reasonable sense: Having a house or shop (re)built benefits the community and as such should give karma.

It is however also a bit bland… Every building would be the same except for the amount of construction required and the amount of karma it garners.

On the other hand, it does keep the game nice and simple. But is that what I want? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to have a deep and complex game? I’m sure these buildings could be used as parts for an in-game engine; allowing for efficient resource swapping. Or perhaps they could be used to in some way make life for your opponents more difficult (build Mayor’s office to collect taxes from the other players?)?

Maybe something in between? Not so simple, but not super intricate either.

The questions is, how do you decide between these options? Deep games are good, but so are simple games. What’s a designer to do?

What’s your vision?

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
This is the first game I sank a serious amount of time into. I never really had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with it and as such it has evolved through at least 4 very distinct phases – different games almost.

After thinking about it (and more importantly trying many things out), I’ve come to some ideas about what I want the game to be like:

  • The core is about helping other players, but in such a way that you’re benefitting more yourself
  • The game plays fairly quickly (10 minutes per player) and I want to keep it at about that level
  • Depth mostly comes from player interactions – any way of building upon that is appreciated
  • Player interactions should not be negative – getting in the way is fine, forcing your “help” upon someone else is fine, but direct attacks are not fine
  • From vision to choices

    The vision above gives direction to what kind of content choices I might make.

    Helping other players: Giving only karma for finishing a building doesn’t work against this, but it doesn’t work with it either.

    In many games buildings do something: Create resources or hinder your opponent. This could very well add something to my game as well.

    It then makes sense to allow buildings to be “activated” by placing a worker. In most games only the “owner” of a building benefits from it, but here it would be interesting to allow any player to activate a building. This should of course give something to the owner as well. That still doesn’t say what a building should do exactly, but it gives some direction at least.

    The game should be fairly quick: This would imply that the game shouldn’t be made much more complex. Thus, heavy engine building is probably better left behind. Some form of light engine building might still work, but that might go against the previous idea; engines usually work for the player building them, not so much for the entire group.

    Depth from player interactions: This would also imply that it would be good for players to be able to make use of each other’s’ buildings.

    Player interactions should not be negative: This follows mostly from the choices above as well. It does mean no “taxing others”, but I think I’m happy to live with that 🙂

    Content – second try

    The conclusion from the previous paragraph is that buildings should be useable by other players for some benefit, while also giving benefits to the “owner”.

    Benefits can come in a number of forms. The simplest form would be to increase resources:

    • Karma
    • Construction resources (materials and money)
    • Workers
    • Construction sites to work on

    Thus, a building could create some form of resource. And to stay in the spirit of things, a worker should be placed to actually produce those resources. The player who places the worker should get the resources.

    For this the two “basic” resources of the game, building materials and money, make perfect sense; they are meant to be scarce and thus there would be an incentive to produce more of them through buildings (see this post for more on incentives in board games). After all, it would be pretty boring if the buildings didn’t actually get used.

    Karma also makes sense, as that would be the goal resource. However, it goes a bit against the idea of “helping others” to gain karma by doing something that doesn’t really benefit anybody else.

    Producing workers might be possible, but it seems a bit strange to place a worker to produce a worker. Maybe if you placed 2 workers…? But what exactly would be the building that would allow for that?! Then again, it would be quite interesting if two different players could produce a worker together… This is something to consider further.

    Another, simpler option is to have a building give a worker when it is finished. That however would mean it wouldn’t have any actions that other players could make use of. It’s of course not strictly necessary to have an action space, but it does fit the vision well.

    The latest prototype – version 50!
    Getting a new construction site to work on also can make perfect sense. However, there is already a mechanism for that. And having construction sites be scarce could seriously slow down the game and would move back to something I tried before: Making spaces for workers scarce (read more about that idea here. Spoiler, it didn’t work that well). I’ll not try this one for now.

    When a building has an action space, the owner of the building should also gain something. One possibility is to gain some of the same resources that the player who placed a worker got. So for example a building could produce money both for the owner of the building and for the person taking the action. Another option is to have it give some karma.

    The karma option seems like the better one. It’s simpler and it’s more in the spirit of the game: Be helpful (by creating a building others want to use) and get rewarded with karma when others actually do.

    Final choices

    What is definitely going in is buildings that produce resources when workers are placed and that give the owner some karma. With two types of resources (building materials and money) this gives two different types of buildings.

    Having a building produce workers by placing workers seems like a very interesting idea and is something I’m going to try out. I’m not entirely sure about the exact mechanism, but I’m sure I can figure something out. This gives a third type of building.

    Finally the I’ll have some buildings which only give karma when constructed. This to keep the game simple and not create too many spaces for workers.

    Closing thoughts

    Having a vision for your game can help to make design choices. Here I showcase it using content choices, but it can be equally helpful for other types of design choices.

    I came by my vision long after I started working on the game. I do believe that this was one of the reasons I had to back-track many times; without a vision I had no way of pre-selecting which design options to peruse, so I had to pursue them all.

    The wise lesson here is to create the vision before getting too deep into a design – something I’ll definitely be doing next time!

    Further reading

    For more reading about the vision of your game see this post.

    I also have a number of posts which tell you more about specific design issues for Los Buenos (then: Voluntarios):
    General introduction
    An example of using scarcity in board games
    Strategy in board games
    Creating interesting choices

    About the author

    Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

    Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

    And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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