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Thinking Out Loud

Friday, November 18, 2005

Stuff n' Junk n' Things >> A Look at the Last Week

This past week has been pretty hectic. Just wrapped up the most recent medical study I was participating in, finished revising all the game materials for the prototype based on last week's playtests and fended off the flu. An exhausting, and only moderately productive, week.

I haven't gotten much gaming in over the last few weeks -- a short night of Tichu last week, a few games of Monkey Madness with my toddler, and some time grinding away on World of Warcraft. This week, there was also a brief appearance at Wednesday night's Boardgame Meetup Group. A fellow BGG Geek, Joel Glidden from Arkansas, was in St. Louis for business, and I was happy to help set up some gaming for him at the meetup while he was here. We played a few games of Tsuro (which I'm actually quite fond of for the 10 minute time killer that it is -- and it plays well with 3, 4 and 6!) an overly-long game of Cartagena then quick games of For Sale and Metro.

But my gaming fortunes look pretty good for the coming weeks. Friday night and Saturday night I'm going to get some more playtesting in for my prototype, and hope to get a bit of additional gaming in, as well... Perhaps Age of Steam or Ra (both of which I've promised I would give another chance to), Amun-Re, El Grande, Alexandros... Heck, at this point I really don't care, I just wanna' game!

Then next week marks the return of the D&D Campaign that MUKid from BGG has been running. It's a great campaign set in Eberron with some interesting military and political wrinkles -- and I'm really looking forward to getting to roleplay again after nearly 2 months without any RPG gaming!! I'm dying to run some games myself, especially Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, Little Fears or the new edition of Warhammer FRPG, but it's been tough to find the time and players.

The real bright spot over the last week has been getting to read! While locked away in the medical study over the weekend, I churned through the first 400 pages of George R.R. Martin's Feast for Crows, the 4th book in the Song of Ice and Fire series (re: A Game of Thrones). I finished the rest of the book in the following two days, which for me is a Herculean feat -- it took me 2 years to finish Lord of Chaos (Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time book 5? 6?). I'm a notoriously slow reader, and often am only a quarter of the way through a book by the time my wife's finished reading it and moved on to the next. It's crazy to be all done, dying to talk about what happened in Feast of Crows, while she's still reading the first chapter!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Playtest Reactions >> So Far, So Good!

I ran 5 playtests of the initial prototype Wednesday, from 10 am to about 10 pm... With teaching the rules, brainstorming after games and documenting discussion, it was a long, exhausting day. The game is a science fiction "adventure" card game... You portray heroes vying for control of the galaxy for their factions. There's map building, exploration, mission resolution, combat and all sorts of things that make this more a boardgame that is played with cards than a traditional card game.

Initial feedback was very positive. Everyone's favorite elements were the combat selection/resolution system and mission resolution. The biggest area for improvement is the way the combat threats are implemented -- trying to find a balance between being worth the investment in actionsand cards while not being overpowering and railroading the game one way or the other.

I typed out about 10 pages of notes, session reports and errata of how we played, what we tweaked each game, and overall feedback and commentsfrom the testers. It recaps the games, discusses card concepts and abilities, how to balance certain features, etc. After the games, we went through the prototype decks one card at a time (all 110 cards) and discussed each card's utility, value and function.

The good news is that the underlying mechanics work very well. The math for combat values can be juggled as needed. The role and impact of combat can be modified. Card effects can be altered to fit more thematic "faction" flavor and play style. But regardless of what changes lie ahead, I'm confident that the underlying chassis is sturdy and flexible, ensuring that this is the right direction to make this a robust, entertaining game.

Consider the firt playtest a huge success!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Playtesting Approaches >> Wish Me Luck!

As some of you may know (but likely more of you do not) I've been hired to develop a card game for release next spring/summer by an established publisher. I can't reveal many of the details yet, but sufficed to say this is a non-collectable card game featuring expandable "decks" to customize game play...

It's been a fairly herculean undertaking so far. I've spent countless hours already setting up big Excel spreadsheets to track all the different card types, card attributes, deck composition, etc.
The good news is that I've wrapped up almost all the data for the initial cardset. Bottom line -- I finally have everything in place for a rough playtest prototype. One of the biggest hurdles has been taking that raw data from the spreadsheets and formatting it into cards I can print out. But now that's almost done, and I'll be ready to give the system a try.

I expect the first playtest to be VERY rough... I have the core mechanics designed, and literally several hundred cards in the entire set (of which the prototype will use roughly a quarter -- selected arbitrarily to set a starting point). At these early stages, I'm most interested to see if the underlying concepts and mechanics work well enough to fulfill the project goals.

I've already been in touch with a dozen or so prospective playtesters, many of them my gaming regulars and buddies from BoardGameGeek... Once I get the first round of playtesting completed and apply some feedback, it will be passed along to the publisher for more thorough playtesting by folks who won't have the game designer sitting around to answer questions or walk them through it.

I gotta' admit, I'm pretty nervous. I think the concepts and mechanics are sound. Time to put that to the test. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tsuro >> Quick Follow-up

I did get to play Tsuro, the new non-collectable, abstract boardgame from WizKids. For the price point (around $18) I definitely got my money's worth. I really like the game and its quick pace, even with the player elimination aspect -- but it didn't impress anyone else I've played it with. I love the art, style and elegance of the game. The layout and design is incredibly well conceived and implemented.

Gameplay is very quick, and the rules very simple. Each player has a small hand of tiles with paths on them, connecting opposite ends of each tile (so as more tiles get placed, these paths connect into longer, more convoluted paths). Each player also gets 1 pawn, which starts out placed along the outer edge of the board. The rules and goal couldn't be simpler: Place a tile next to your current piece, then move your piece along the new path created as far as it will travel... And try to be the last one standing on the board.

Sure, there's an initial rush to reach the center of the board, so a path won't take you to the edge right away -- but as soon as more people get toward the center, the more tiles there are that can connect to a newly placed tile, creating some very long circuits sending pawns all over the place. It's a neat, lightly strategic exercise in visualization, with wonderful looking components. That said, Tsuro feels a lot like Dirk Henn's Metro, but with only one "train" to worry about per player...

The Bottom Line: I'd like to get in more plays and see if it changes the opinion of anyone in my group. It plays quickly enough that I'd wager no one would necessarily turn it down -- but I don't think anyone (but myself) will be calling for it to hit the table. Tsuro's stellar production oozes elegance, and the gameplay is very quick. This is a solid, if not spectacular, "filler" abstract. Rating: 7/10.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Citadels >> Mixed Emotions... My Quasi-Love/Hate Relationship...

I won't go into the game rules or game flow, as it's adequately detailed in other reviews over at BoardGameGeek. Instead, I'll focus on a few of the main game quirks that spring to mind whenever anyone suggests playing a game of Citadels -- hopefully the sort of things a prospective purchaser can use to determine whether or not Citadels will be the right sort of game for their particular gaming group.

Overall, I've got very mixed feelings about Citadels. I'm usually a big fan of Bruno Faidutti games, which can offer some incredibly interesting game decisions based on playing off the other people rather than playing off the game mechanic, or have a nice rat-a-tat-tat game pace based on quick turns and decisive actions.

For the most part, I really like the concept and implementation of Citadels. The quasi-hidden role selection (though the earlier selectors have more information) is quite a bit of fun, and adds to the mind-game aspect (If I pick 3rd, and have the Architect available, do I dare take him if I think the Assassin was selected earlier, etc). However, I think the game suffers from two things that keep it from being a true favorite or recurring guest at the table:

1) Player/System Issue: Downtime.

For some reason, the game has small pockets of downtime, and lurches along at an uneven pace. Even with very short, discrete turn options, I've had some 5-6 player games of Citadels last nearly 2 hours -- which is inexcusable in my mind for the types of decisions and sort of gameplay experience I feel Citadels strives for. Perhaps I'm merely impatient, but for a backstabbing game with lots of shifts and changes in position (reminiscent of Cosmic Encounter) It *feels* like the pace should be frantic and frenetic.

2) System Issue: Gang Up On The Leader/Game Extension.

While I like games having some means to target the leader, there's something about Citadels which makes me feel that it's almost too easy to gang up on the leader, further lengthening the game. The Warlord's destructive power clearly delays the endgame. The assassin and thief indirectly lengthen the game by reducing player options. Sometimes, the game drags to a point where it feels like a game of Zombies -- "my God, won't somebody just *win* already?!?!?" ... As soon as someone establishes a good lead, they're a target for anyone with a "zapping" power -- Assassin, Thief, Warlord or one of several variant powers.

That said, with the right group (which enjoys the ride as a friendly game of backstabbing rather than a deep strategic endeavor) I thoroughly enjoy Citadels. In my mind, the game should play in about 30-45 minutes for the type of experience it provides. Once it starts to stretch out much longer than an hour, I quickly lose interest -- and the risk of ending up in one of those marathon games alone keeps Citadels from hitting the table more often, which is a real shame.

The Bottom Line: 6.5/10 -- Citadels is (or can be) a surprisingly solid game for 6 or 7 players, despite its faults. Don't enjoy it as much with only 3-4, as there's even less interaction between players. Gameplay should ideally be quick, dastardly and exciting to the very end. Or at least, should be -- but with the wrong group, it tends to drag on. I dislike a few character abilities (assassin, warlord) which lengthen the game considerably without adding anything to compensate.