Board game design, Los Buenos

Somehow these are meant to change how I play this game?!?
I’ve been able to get in a reasonable number of play tests for Los Buenos recently. The core of the game is pretty solid, but there are quite a few things “at the edges” that can be better. Changes thus have been relatively small, making comparisons between different versions easier to make.

What I’ve found interesting to see is that relatively small changes can result in significant differences in player behavior. On the one hand this is great, because it means I can incentivize different actions with minor adjustments. On the other, it also means that a small change could remove quite a bit of what is actually working. As always, it’s a balancing act…

In this post I want to go into a few things I’ve run into and hopefully gain some general ideas about incentives and player behavior.

Incentives – or: How much do I get?

One of the fundamental mechanics of Los Buenos is that a major way of gaining Karma Points (victory points) is by “helping” other players. Each player can start building projects and other players can place workers (technically they are work tokens but for this post the difference doesn’t matter) to help finish a building. Every player who places at least one worker gets 1 karma point. The player who places the most workers get additional karma points. In case of a tie these additional points don’t get given out. Thus, there is an incentive to “help the most”.

For most of the play tests the “bonus” for helping the most was 2 karma points, for a total of 3 (1 for helping at all, 2 for helping the most). The buildings available in the beginning of the game give the “owner” 3 or 4 karma points and require them to use some workers as well (mostly to gather the resources (wood and gold) required to be able to start building.) Thus, initiating a building and “helping the most” give about the same benefits.

The observed behavior was that players would work towards being “most helpful” and would be ok with others “helping the most” if it came up as well.

Then I changed the amount players got for “helping the most” to 3 karma points (for a total of 4). Behavior suddenly changed significantly: Players would think hard and actively collude to prevent others from getting these points.

In previous games I had regularly seen players take an action to “block” someone from gaining the points, but it was far from a sure thing. Now suddenly it was the one thing driving the game.

What behavior do I want?

It would be cool if my board game got people to do this!
So the question then becomes: What kind of behavior do I want? Well, maybe I should’ve asked this question before doing my tests, but hey, you use what you’ve got, right? 🙂

Having players actively work against each other makes for interesting player interaction. I like the fact that they were discussing on how they could block someone. It also creates more tension, as it means that players that have a chance to get the 4 points are eager for that to happen.

On the other side, it takes away player agency: During your turn you’re almost “obliged” to prevent another player from getting their points. And this reduces the amount of interesting choices players have to make. It’s not that they’re gone, but there are less of them!

It also makes it frustrating for players that it’s very hard for them to actually get the 4 points as this entirely depends on other players’ actions. Having said that, there are possibilities to “set up” the board in such a way that other players have to make a choice on who they prevent getting the 4 points.

Finally, the game with the higher points felt “harsher”: Players are much more working against each other. I want this to happen somewhat, but perhaps not all the time.

Based on the above I’m edging towards going back to giving 2 points for helping the most. I’m however not entirely sure, so I’ll run at least one other play test with the 3-point rule.

Incentive: The right place at the right time

The game includes “experts” and “expert spaces”. These expert spaces can only be occupied by expert workers, while expert workers can occupy both expert spaces and normal spaces. The twist is that when you place an expert on an expert space you get 1 karma (the rationale being that experts like doing difficult work).

The result of this is that as soon as an expert space becomes available, players are eager to place their expert, as it gives them a “free” karma. And players almost always do.

The upsides and downsides

We can all use a little nudge to start investing
The upside of this mechanic is that it gets players “invested” in building projects: You’ve already placed a worker, so why not go for the full bonus of “helping the most” as well?

This was something that was very useful in previous versions of the game, where there were buildings that required a lot of workers and players otherwise were inclined not to start on them – too much risk of someone else grabbing the “most helpful” bonus.

In the current version however the number of workers required is mostly 2 or 3, with a few “big” buildings needing 4 workers. Thus the incentive to “start” isn’t needed as much anymore.

Also, it’s an additional rule to game. Part of my vision is to make the game as “light” as possible – I’d like for people to feel it’s at about the same level as Catan. And thus I have to think about whether this (and every other) rule is “pulling its weight”.

Finally, there is some thematic explanation for getting a karma when placing an expert on an expert space, but it’s somewhat “thin”.

Thus, I’m going to make a version that doesn’t use experts at all to see if behavior changes significantly.

One thing I’m curious to see if it makes the game longer. I can imagine that having an obviously “good” action available makes it easier to make a choice. On the other hand, does that also mean that there are fewer interesting choices?

Lessons learned

Above I explained two sets of incentives within the game and the kind of behavior that they result in. For both I’m not sure whether I actively want to change anything, but thinking about it does make it much clearer what the pros and cons are.

It also made me realize that it’s a very good idea to start thinking about what kind of behavior I want and then to design towards that (instead of throwing things in and seeing what happens – what I’ve mostly been doing so far).

It also allows me to pro-actively create “experiments”: I’m going to experiment with removing the experts. The experiment will be a success if behavior does not change significantly (and people are not complaining that they are missing the expert).

I’ll also experiment further with the increased karma points for “helping the most”. There the “success” is less clear though: Both options have advantage and disadvantages. It would however be very useful to see whether the observed behavior works for other groups besides the one I tested with most recently. And if that’s the case I’ll see if I can somehow get the best of both worlds, with the increased tension of the higher points, while keeping the set of interesting choices from the lower points.

Finally, it’s good to get insight in behavior of people around the game. I might change something in the future which means it would be very beneficial to increase competition. I now know that one way of doing that is increasing the amount of point players get from helping the most.

Closing thoughts

Let’s paint us some incentives!
When you start designing a game you’re painting with a very broad brush. There is a big idea, some clues about which mechanics might work. And during early play tests those can change wholesale. Elements get cut, mechanics change irrecognizably, the theme goes from one end to the other. If you don’t like something a player is doing, just remove the entire thing!

Then when you get further into the design the game solidifies. Changes get smaller and more subtle. You might still swap something out if it’s not working but it gets more rare. Influencing what players do is more by setting up how elements interact than by wholesale addition and removal.

And then finally when you have a “working game” you want to perfect it. The tiniest brush the allows you to push your players to do a little bit more of something. To get them to take an action 10% less often.

I believe that it’s at this last part where you need to think deeply about your incentives. Why do players do what they do? Is that what you want them to do? How do you change it? How do you change it the right amount?

What are the incentives you’ve employed in your game?
Did you ever had “troublesome” player behavior? What did you do about it?
Do you actively think about how to get players to do what you want them to?

Further reading

A while back I also wrote a (more general) post on incentives in board games.

And In the above I talk about the expert spaces. This was the subject of another post as well, where I looked at how the scarcity of these spaces impacted the game.

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:

Board game design, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

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:

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

Maybe if I move the one stone just a few millimeters to the left?
A bit back I wrote about having gone to a convention to play test Los Buenos. I came back with a lot of compliments and also a lot of things that could be improved upon further. In the past few weeks I’ve been hacking away at these issues, while uncovering a few more.

Recently I was able to play a test game with my family. And lo-and-behold! All of the issues I’d identified were gone!

Except…

The game wasn’t fun anymore…(!)

In this post I want to do a post-mortem of the current state of the game. To see what went “wrong”, how I got there and to find steps to go forward.

This will go in-depth in some of the mechanics of the game. I’m not going to give all the rules, but for a very short overview of Los Buenos: It’s a worker placement game where after an earthquake you’re cleaning up and rebuilding a village. The goal is to do “as much good as possible”, which is expressed to gaining karma points whenever you do something that helps an opponent (e.g. cleaning up a destroyed building so that space becomes available to build on, or placing workers on an opponent’s building plan so you help them construct it). I hope this helps to grasp my descriptions of the game. If it’s still unclear, let me know?

The first diagnosis

Would there be a living to be made as a “board game doctor”?
As mentioned I found a number of elements that weren’t working perfectly in the game:

The biggest problem was that first round tended to play out in exactly the same way: The first player would distribute building plans (so they could have the “best” choice of building, while also gaining karma from other players taking one (they “helped” another player to get a plan, so they get karma!)), then the second would distribute money or wood (whichever they needed the most, while gaining karma from others taking some as well) and the third player would do wood or money (whichever of the two was left).

Now, this wasn’t an issue for most people who played the game for the first time. It gives some advantage to being an earlier player, but that can be reasonably be offset in later turns. However, when playing multiple times, it becomes glaringly obvious that you’re doing the same thing over and over.

Another problem was that in the last round sometimes there wasn’t much to do. There might not be any empty spaces to start a new building, or there were no resources to construct buildings with. Players would find something to do (though I’ve had it as well that a player couldn’t use all of their workers), but it regularly felt more like a scramble for a final few points than being actively constructive.

As a final but minor issue I wanted to make it a viable strategy to never construct any of your own buildings, but to win by gaining karma from helping others only.

Taking the medicine

Should I give my game the blue pill or the red pill?
I experimented with potential solutions to the problems above.

Tackling the last one first, I was able to balance things in such a way that “helping” became as powerful as “building”. This was done by reducing the number of karma points that a building gave to its owner to the be very similar to the number of points you could get when helping to build that building.

The other two problems were mostly solved by changing the way things got finished. Initially, finishing buildings and cleanup were done in at the end of the round. This was the moment when players got their karma, where a new building became available (to be used in subsequent turns) and (most importantly) where new resources (wood and money) became available through salvage (cleaning up of destroyed buildings).

I changed this so that whenever the work was done (all required workers were placed), something was finished. Especially for the “cleanup” this made a big difference: Resources and empty spaces (to build on) now became available throughout the round, instead of in a big bang at the end. This greatly reduced the power of the “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions; as soon as some resources became available, some player would usually distribute them (taking most themselves). This would still benefit them, but it did mean there wasn’t the additional karma gained from helping other players get resources.

This also meant that during the final round it was much easier to make resources available and thus that it was fully possible to finish (or even start and finish) a building project.

To solve the issue of the stale first round one more ingredient was needed. The “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions were not immediately available. Instead they needed to be “constructed” like any other kind of building. The first round was (mostly) spent on constructing these starting-action buildings, meaning that it became somewhat random when the actions became available and also how powerful they were at that moment. The result: the first turn played out differently every time!

Side effects worse than the disease?

“The operation was successful. Unfortunately your game is now being eaten by aliens!”
We played a game and all of the original issues were gone!

But the game lost its fun.

To use a quote: “It feels that it doesn’t matter which actions I take, they all give the same result in karma points.”

And this was true. Every action was give-or-take equally powerful. Only through consistently doing a tiny bit better than the others could you scrape together a meager few more karma points than the others.

The balance between different options had become too good. There were no more “stand-out” actions. Or to use the ideas from this post: Nothing made an impact anymore!

And that made for bland and boring gameplay.

What worked before the pills

Before making the changes there were some buildings that were somewhat better than others. Not incredibly much so, but still by a bit. This meant that there was an incentive to go for them. To want them instead of others. Creating excitement when you got them instead of something else. Creating tension on who would be able to grab what.

There were also awesome moves to make: Distributing wood and taking it all! Or giving it all away, earning a whopping 3 karma points with just a single worker (most actions get you in the order of 1 point). This was mostly possible because of the end-of-round finishing of things. There was stuff that was happening this round which set up a lot of possibilities for the next round. Because only in that next round could you make use of all the spaces and resources made available!

More injections or different injections?

I don’t like needles, so here is a picture of some cute bunnies instead
In solving one set of problems I created another set.

The choice now is whether I want to continue with what I have and solve the new stuff, or whether it makes more sense to go back to a previous version and try to solve the original problems but in a different way.

What’s the right way forward?

I feel that the answer to this one is actually quite simple. Previous problems were about solving important but in the end minor problems (similar first rounds, uninspiring last rounds). While my current problem is that the game has lost its fun!

Issues can be overlooked, as long as the game is enjoyable!

So, I’m going back to a previous version and I’ll try to solve my problems in a different way.

Thoughts on new treatments

The biggest issue that I had was that the first round always was the same. One way of fixing this is “skipping the first round”.

Generally in the first round people would work to get a project and to get the resources for them. Perhaps I can start them out with a project and the resources required. Or even better, start with projects that don’t require resources?

This is thematically somewhat less satisfying, but I think I can make a twist on the story that works. And while I think thematic embedding is very important, I do think fun should trump it!

For the last round having nothing to do, I believe that it would be possible to simply ignore this problem (no solution is also a solution!) but I do want to give it further thought. One option is to have some ways of generating resources throughout the game (there is already something in it to do that – perhaps it could be strengthened?).

A more important issue might be not having any empty spaces available to build on. This could be solved by creating a stronger incentive to create empty spaces? Simply giving out more karma points would probably work, but that might create other balancing issues (I don’t players to start the game with cleaning up all the available spaces either!). I’m sure that there is some intermediate solution that could be found for this, with a bit more thinking!

Strengthening the patient even further

I see a lot of potential!
This time at the “intensive care” has given me time to think about what is important in a game. I want to give more thought to “creating impact” in the game, to ensure that players can have “awesome turns” (while at the same time ensuring that these do not mean a complete win of the game).

This could be done by making things less balanced. More difference between buildings to be built. Giving a decent chance of having a lot of resources to spread so that the “distribute” actions become very cool when pulled off right.

I also think it would be good to give some thought about adding more strategy to the game. It’s now very “tactical”; players are trying to optimize each turn, without thinking ahead too much about how it will all come together. Luckily I already wrote something about general board game strategies some time ago. Perhaps I can make use of some earlier insights? 🙂

One way could be to have a mild form of “set collection” in the game, where you gain additional points based on what kind of buildings you’ve built. Another option is to do more with the location of buildings (relative to each other), so that players care more about what they are building where: Houses built next to each other gain additional points, but houses next to a workplace lose a point?

A final option is to add some sort of “objective”; hidden information on something that would score a player further points (this is inspired by this post on the different endings of board games).

And perhaps I’ll come up with some other ideas as well when pondering this further.

Closing thoughts

After playing the last test I felt down. It sucks to solve your problems only to create bigger ones in their place!

Now, with a bit of reflection, I’m already feeling a lot better. Set-backs happen. And in the bigger scheme of things, this really is a minor one.

In fact, some really good stuff might come from this. I hope I’ll be able to really strengthen the game where it comes to creating impactful turns and by injecting some strategy into it. Had these issues not come to the fore, I might never have thought about that!

What are your memorable set-backs?
How did you take them?
What did you learn from them?
And most importantly, what did they do to your game in the end?

Finally: If you have any brilliant ideas or solutions to my specific problem, I would love to hear about them! Leave me a comment or use one of the other ways of contacting me below?

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:

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: