Based on my dour prediction from the last post, I’m reminded that I sell myself short too often. I walked in to Crafter Con thinking that I had no games. I resolved to learn and play, making the best of things. Fortunately I arrived early. Of equal fortune, Jay Little interpreted the schedule the same way I did. He was just as early. We were the only ones there – and had an hour to talk and share.
The three lessons from Jay
Lesson 1: It is okay to have very rough prototypes at Protospiel (and in playtesting).
We discussed one of the games that Jay was going to be testing: the prototype itself was a game board on a large scrap of poster board, play areas and guide text hand written, scribbled out, and re-written in a glorious mess. There was a collection of card-shaped slips of paper (with hand-drawn values). There were an assortment of tokens, those being the most finished and consistent component of the game. It was a perfect game to bring to Protospiel (link to the FaceBook group – the website is down) – a textbook “minimally viable” game construction. This was an inspiration to me. Jay is an accomplished game designer, and he was very comfortable with an un-polished handmade prototype.
Lesson 2: Give your players meaningful choices.
Our conversation skirted the notion of providing a meaningful experience to players that caused tension and resolution, challenge and triumph but even more so: meaningful choices. He drove this point home later in his talk at CrafterCon (the “classroom” portion of Protospiel). The notion inspired me to dust off “hex match”. I shelved “Continuity” and “Body Shop” (the games I planned on working with) and focused completely on the one game. I added what I thought would be a single, meaningful choice and threw it to the play testers. That meaningful choice revived my interest in and optimism for my game.
Lesson 3: The Rule of Three.
This is Jay’s trademark thing. His students at UW Stout all learn this rather quickly. Three is a “magical” number and can be a sufficient answer to any design question:
- How many cards should I start players with? 3
- How many rounds should there be in a turn? 3
- How many decisions should a player make in a turn? 3
This is not to imply that 3 is the final answer, rather, it is the default answer when the question comes up. Don’t waste time on design decisions – answer questions with “3” and evaluate. You may need to increase or decrease from there but you don’t stop the creative process agonizing on the number cards in a player’s hand. It is a seemingly silly, but powerful concept to keep the creative flow moving.
What is Protospiel?
For those of you who do not know what a Protospiel event is I apologize for getting to this late in the post – I’ll try to give you an overview.
Game designers, of every experience level, bring prototypes of games to the event. An important rule is that the game must be a prototype. You sit down at a table, usually fill out a little white board with the name of your game , indicate the number of players needed, and there is a little flag of some sort to indicate if you need players. You set up your game and wait. Or you can ask somebody with a flag up, if they still need a play tester.
At that point you are at the table, the game creator (maybe you) teaches the game (as much as possible – some games are not completed prototypes). Questions are dealt with and game play commences. You may or may not complete the game. The play tester or game creator then halts game play – they request feedback – sometimes very specific feedback – and then usually some conversation follows. Etiquette dictates at this point, that the game creator asks one or all of the play testers if they have a game to try out. If yes – a space is found, the game is set up and the cycle repeats. If the game creator is fortunate – this will happen all day for several days until the Protospiel event is done.
The creator reviews their notes, organizes names and contacts that they collected and uses all the information to improve their game. And yes, that sounds rather cut and dried. Oftentimes play testing leads to on-the-fly rules changes, or creators think up an entirely new sort of game that they quickly prototype and test at the event. It’s all wonderful creative chaos in a very friendly and supportive environment. Yes – you need to be able to take criticism. I’ve never observed it to be mean spirited, but it may be vigorous. For instance – one group of players intending to test my game sat down and cried out: “Let’s break Nick’s game!” and proceeded to do just that in about a minute. They yelled: “Yay! We broke Nick’s game!” I high fived the culprit and we had a five minute discussion on how to fix the flaw, fixed it, played again and high fived each other for making the game that much better.
Back to my hex game
Tough Choices (or) Kill Your Darlings
My “meaningful choice” for “hex match” was interesting. The player was given a set of six tiles, one each, having a specific value. The player then has to choose which two tiles they were going to play in that round. I loved this – it was a constraint that added tension prior to play and with repeated trials, players tended to discover that some tiles were better than others and it impacted their strategies. That said, playtesting also showed that players chafed at the artificial choice. They wanted to use all the tiles and not have to guess about what they needed in the future. This was particularly evident in the first round – where tiles were not on the table – so what was a good tile to start with? It caused choices that were meaningful in a sense – but the meaning was often hidden so control was lost. Players need agency in their actions, not a mechanic that makes them feel they have little agency at all. I had to remove the mechanic all together. Players liked the change – there still seemed to be a placement and selection challenge – so the experience that I wanted stayed intact.
I had one play tester tell me that the game could be “solved”. I scoffed. How could it be solved?
He presented the example of tic-tac-toe:
- There is a 3×3 grid making up 9 possible playable positions
- This works out to be 9! (9 factorial) which if you do the math (9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1) you get 362,880 possible position combinations leading to win, lose or draw for any given player.
362,880 is a big number (for us bipedal apes with trouble with numbers beyond ten fingers’ worth). Even so, it is literal child’s play to assimilate the subset of patterns that feed winning combinations. It is easy to “always win” tic-tac-toe. Humans are essentially pattern hacking machines.
Now take a simplified factorial view of my game – originally 6 tiles per player, six sides each. Overly simplified – but it will suffice for understanding the orders of magnitude:
- Essentially we’re looking at 6! or 720
- Double the tile count and it becomes 12! or 479,001,600
I was convinced. I’ll concede that the reasoning was bad – in fact, I should be doing permutations, not factorial calculations – which gets us into much bigger numbers very fast…. but I will not digress into the math (but I have spreadsheets calculating this all out now). I’ll save that for another post…. The point is that a higher tile count provides more manageable complexity and replayability.
Talking to a veteran designer, re-thinking my stance on a “broken” game, killing a newly discovered mechanic that I loved and most importantly: having dozens of successful play tests and collaborative discussions with designers has led me back to hex match. I will see it to the logical end – getting it to a state that a publisher can pick it up.
- Find somebody to make me a real company logo [in process]
- Complete the print-ready files to make a prototype via The Game Crafters [in process]
- Buy trial components that are more publish friendly (I was using glass beads as point markers which are visually pleasing but too heavy and breakable for a production game) [not started]
- Determine minimum box size (it will be a small game) [not started]
- Find an artist to do box art, maybe tiles and provide assets for the rule book/user guide [not started]
- Research game play time, game teach time, and observe player behavior [in process]
- Write player manual [in process]
- Find a graphic artist that can help me lay out the box and rule book – this might be the same person who makes my “better logo” [not started]
- Create pitch materials [not started]
- Practice short and long pitch [not started]
- Oh – and work on “Body Shop” [in process]