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:

Facebooktwitterreddit
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.

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

Facebooktwitterreddit
Board game design, Play-testing, Prototyping

Introduction

Creating something takes a lot of work!
Creating something takes a lot of work!
Designing a game takes a lot of time. Brainstorming ideas, settling on one, making a prototype, self-testing, adjusting, play-testing, further adjusting, etc.

And at any point in this process you can find out: “No, this isn’t going to work after all”. Meaning you can throw away your hard work and start from scratch.

So anything that can save some time anywhere in this cycle is worth it.

From idea to prototype

After lying awake for a night you get up with a brilliant idea for your next board-game. It’s going to be like Monopoly – but with zombies!

You’ve got the basics of the rules and you know more-or-less what kind of components you’re going to need.

So you start fleshing out a prototype. You grab the pieces from one of your existing zombie games, you draw a board on a piece of paper and you start sketching some cards you need.

Before you know it you’re lost in the minutiae of the work: What’s the equivalent of “Boardwalk” and “Go to jail” for zombies? What kind of rent should you ask for “Zombie-invested-high-school”?

But diligently you push through and after a few hours (days?) you have a prototype, ready for your first play-test. You turn on your schizophrenia and take on four different roles and play your first game.

And guess what? The it sucks! (Because seriously, Monopoly with zombies?!?).

Was there a way of figuring this out earlier?

Ideas are easy

Creating an idea is easy. But most initial ideas won’t stand the test of gameplay. Or perhaps there is something in there, but not enough to actually base your entire board-game on.

Which makes it highly unfortunate that creating a prototype takes a relatively large amount of time. Especially if you need to create 10 before you have one that you feel you actually want to continue with.

If only you could do your initial play-testing without creating a prototype?!

The blank play-test

A clean sheet, ready to be filled with great ideas!
A clean sheet, ready to be filled with great ideas!
Recently I’ve been doing “blank play-tests”.

Here you take your vague and un-formed idea and start playing it as soon as possible, without making any components.

There will be a board at some point? Use a piece of white paper.

You’ll be playing cards? Empty ones will do for now.

Need something to represent XYZ? Use tokens borrowed from another game.

With these “blank” components you can play the bare-bones of the game. Every turn you can play a card on a board-space that has some influence on that space? Go ahead and place some empty cards on an empty piece of paper. Imagine what these cards might say. Imagine what could be on the board. Imagine how they interact.

You can place workers on your spaces with cards? Get some cubes from an old game and place them. Take turns doing this for different (imaginary) players.

Of course this won’t tell you everything about your game. But it most certainly will tell you something. And with the minimal investment required it’s a very good way of quickly discarding ideas that don’t work and to preempt problems before making a real prototype.

Let’s take a further look with an example.

An example

Pawns of the Gods or Zombie Monopoly?!
Pawns of the Gods or Zombie Monopoly?!
I recently started work on a new game, working title: “Pawns of the Gods”. The idea is that you are a fledgling god trying to get people to believe in you so that you can rise in power

In a nutshell, the game has two parts: First there is an “automated” or “AI” part, which controls a number of different groups of people in conflict with each other. Then there is the player controlled part, where you play cards to “help” these groups in their conflicts with each other; help a group be victorious over their opponent and you’ll have gained a believer (or two).

I started out with toying with the AI part. I grabbed a bunch of cubes and had them represent lands, population, food, mercantile power and military might. Land grows food grows population grows mercantile power grows military might. Which would then be used to attack another group.

And just by pushing some cubes around I found that this was way too complicated and took forever (wise lessons: board-game AIs should be very very simple!). So I removed the need for lands and food, still too complicated. Remove population and merchants, but put the lands back in. Lands give military might. If you win a battle you get more lands, which give more military might. Simple and effective. This will definitely need more work in the future (how to stop one group from winning once they start?), but it was good enough to start with.

The second step was the player bit: Playing cards to “help” different sides of a conflict. I imagined generally two types of cards: One type to directly influence the conflict (“give +2 strength to one side of a conflict”) and deck manipulation (“look at the top 5 cards of the deck, put three on the bottom and the other two on top in any order”).

So I played, giving each “player” a hand of blank cards and at a whim deciding whether they would be of one type or another.

Results were quick to come in: Yes, this worked. Adding strength was much more interesting than manipulating the deck (though that might just be because it was a stack of white cards? 🙂 ). There wasn’t a lot of excitement because it was pretty obvious what was happening and who would “win”.

Prototype v0.01 of Pawns of the Gods
Prototype v0.01 of Pawns of the Gods
A next “iteration” allowed you to play a card face-down, hiding what you played from the other players (yes I was playing on my own, knowing full well what the other “I” just played, which was a “face down” card that was completely white on both sides. I’m glad nobody was there to observe me!). With this there seemed to be a decent amount of tension in the game.

In total I spent a few hours, working on several “virtual” iterations. After which I had sufficient feeling for the game to say that it wouldn’t be dead on arrival of the first (real) prototype.

Advantages of blank play-testing

I hope the previous paragraphs already made clear some of the advantages of blank play-testing, but let’s go into this a bit more.

The first advantage of blank play-testing is that you can start as soon as you have a game idea. You’re saving time on prototyping until you’re at least a bit sure that there is something worth pouring time into making.

I’ve also found that without anything written down, it’s much easier to make changes. “This blank card is now a face-down modifier to the battle, that will get turned face-up when we resolve the conflict”. You try that for three rounds and find that it indeed makes the game much more tense (or that it absolutely doesn’t work as intended, in which case you can easily try something else). No need to make actual changes, just a different mindset.

Because once I have a prototype there is an internal resistance to making changes: They take work, require new printouts (when you get to printed prototypes), etc. No such resistance when everything is empty anyway!

Finally there is the tactility of playing with “actual” pieces. I can play a game in my head reasonably well, but it’s far from really holding a card and playing it. Only then do you notice that this means you have a card less in your hand and that your deck will run out. Or that you need to figure out what happens when you play two cards at the same location.

Final thoughts

Hopefully blank play-testing will be another useful tool in your board-game developers belt
Hopefully blank play-testing will be another useful tool in your board-game developers belt
Blank play-testing will not be for everybody. You’ll need to be able to keep some stuff in your head and you need to be able to do solo play-tests (could you do this with a group?!).

Also blank play-tests are a single step and in no way the entire process. At some point you’re going to need a real prototype, to pin down exactly what your componentst do.

Having said that, I find blank play-tests useful and I hope you will as well! If you try this, let me know what your results are and if you have further suggestions?

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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:

Facebooktwitterreddit