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Subject: Designer Diary - Five Tribes - Part 4 rss

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bruno cathala
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5 - An abandoned inn ...

Late December. The atmosphere is festive at the Lair for the final Friday game night of the year. After our traditional meal around a large communal table, it is time to get serious.

I open my box of Heliopolis, and begins setting the game up. First observation: the theme catches people’s attention. The profusion of components, the images I scavenged to set the mood, the palms, pyramids and plastic camels from "Sacré Chameau" (a French retheme of Worms Up!), the Meeples galore, all contribute to make people want to play.

Francois, Sébastien (Matinciel and Xseb on Trictrac forums) and Mael (my son) are the first to volunteer as cobayes in my company. That’s because I always participate as an active players in all of my games initial playtests, at least for the first few sessions. In parallel to the impressions of each of the other testers, I need to build my own impressions as a player. My own personal creativity stems from rather selfish sources since I am my own first client and only work on games I’d want to play. Thus, by comparing my testers’ feedback with my own personal impressions of the game, I can quickly figure out who and what to listen to, and also (perhaps more importantly?) what not to worry about.

The rules are quick to explain and easily assimilated by my partners. That is good news. Immediately after the first "auction", everybody seems on board and engaged. Again, this feels good. But most importantly, we discover, little by little, some interesting possibilities. Depending on the number of Meeples on each tile, some interesting moves arise; Provided one sees them. I like that too, as it becomes quite clear this game has a real learning curve. I like games that do not necessarily reveal all their secrets during their first play. At the same time, I realize that these days, it is imperative that a game’s first play be fun enough to make gamers want to give it a second chance, even if they didn’t fully master it on their first play, so that the game doesn’t immediately ends its career gathering dust on a shelf. I make a mental note to myself: "Maybe write some sort of Strategy guide before the game's release, if I find a publisher."

The first game goes well, very well. All right. Obviously, there are a ton of imperfect things that I will have to correct. More on this later. But I’ve witnessed something rare during this first play: early into the game, it became quite clear that, under the current rules, the game was unbalanced in terms of the different ways to earn victory points. Specifically, the merchants are clearly overpowered. Usually, when something like this occurs, the game immediately stops, I correct this bug during the following week, and the next Friday we’re back to testing the new version. But that’s not what happened here! Despite the obvious imbalance, everyone wanted to not only finish the game, but also immediately start another (I did a quick on-the-spot fix, trusting my guts after the first game, but it turned out not to be enough).

To sum things up: a great evening, which boosts my confidence in the viability of this project... and as often on Friday, once back home, sleep eludes me as I can’t help but think of the different elements that I will have to adjust for next time:

➢ Game turn structure: nothing to report - it's just perfect as it is. You pay to choose your turn order, then move some meeples, do their action, then the action of the tile. Simple. Effective. You always need a solid foundation on which to build a game. The foundation is there, it will not change.

➢ Game duration: We arrived quite quickly to a situation in which there was no valid moves left. Since it would have been too frustrating to stop the game so early, I imagined a system mid-way through that first test, where one would place 3 Meeples again on all empty tiles, the first time a state with no legal moves left was reached. The game then ended the second time there was no legal moves left. Sure, it worked, but first this wasn’t elegant, mechanically speaking, and second it added a random element in the mid-game that feel wrong for this kind of game. So I need to add more tiles instead; while making sure to preserve the color split of the meeples. Another 5 tiles minimum. 5 x 6 tiles is where we ended.

➢ Spending Victory coins to determine the Turn Order: this system works well, introducing just the right amount of tension at the start of a turn. Inevitably though, there is still a "But ...".

My initial betting track for this is 0-1-3-5-8-12. Before our first play-test, paying 12 gold pieces, ie 12 victory points to be sure to play 1 turn before everyone else, seemed monstrously expensive. And then gradually as the parties progressed, and our "reading" of possibilities and situations at hand became more accurate, we realized that there were, at times, terrific move opportunities which could yield up to 30 victory points at once. And in those situations, paying 12 coins to start was comparatively cheap, and got you to play first too. So what to do ... return to a free auction system? out of the question for the reasons mentioned earlier. So add another higher-cost spot to the betting track? Yes, absolutely.

And this is where I added the an additional spot with a cost of 18! I remember very well the look on the face of my gaming acolytes the first Friday night I showed them this new track with its 18 coins spot. They thought I’d gone crazy. At best they were mocking; at worst, they were looking to intern me. And then we played. And this additional most expensive spot on the betting track produced exactly the effect I wanted. Certainly during the first game, nobody used it. Then why did it still satisfy me? Just because of the possibilities that it introduced. Particularly when a player who bets first decides to spend 12, because now, it is still unclear whether she will get to play first or not. The possibility that someone might opt to pay more, exceptionally, forces that player to consider the follow-on players bets more closely... and when two games later, I finally narrowly lost only because during the very last turn I did not want / dare to outbid a 12 and pay 18 , this additional spot on the betting track definitely earned its position and inclusion in the game!

➢ Money, money…: Since the players spend money to determine their turn order, the question arises of how much to give to each player at game start. This question may seem trivial. It has actually proved crucial.
From the get-go, I wanted to create a real tense situation around this phase of the game. So initially I thought that this tension would be higher the smaller the amount of money players started with; they’d have to manage their cash carefully, keeping some in reserve for later turns. Then I noticed that having too little money at game start had the opposite effect: players preferred not to spend at all, going against the very effect I had hoped for. So, play-test after play-test, I increased the original amount, before ending up with 50 gold coins per player. With this larger initial amount, paying 3 or 6 coins didn’t seem like much; the fight for position each turn became that much more tense and excited. Just like I wanted it to, when I envisioned this bidding mechanic!

➢ Access to Gods and Resources: Arbitrarily, for starters, I opted for 6 Resource cards and 3 Gods to be available, face up. When a player drew one of these, it was immediately replaced, giving everyone equal access to the same number of resources and gods. But this turned out to go against the very idea of paying to choose the order of play: in fact, if I pay to, for example, play first and be the first to choose some resources only to see the next resource cards drawn be even better than those I grabbed, I’ll be left with the unpleasant feeling of having paid for nothing. Worse, I 'll probably end up learning not to pay and just wait.
So I changed this. Now those Gods and Resources do not get replenished until the the end of a full turn once each player has played. This means putting a larger number of resource cards face up to draw from initially (we increased this from 6 to 9). But still only 3 gods: After all, if there is a God you really absolutely want, simply pay for it by making sure you play first!

➢ Balancing victory points: I need to tweak the points gained from merchants, increase a bit those gained from controlling tiles, and a whole bunch of other small micro-adjustments +1 point here, -1 point there. This balancing was initially somewhat empirical, but as we played more and more games, I began compiling a database of points scored in each manner, to track progression and ensure that no one strategy would come to dominate the others. The resources remain attractive but there are other, equally effective ways to achieve victory. And it is tempting to choose not to pay for your order in the turn, but victory smiles to those who choose to invest wisely, in this regard.

In the end, the bulk of these tweaks were done in the space of a month. By the end of January 2013, a little more than 5 weeks after the first test of my initial small prototype, I’d accomplished what I had set out to design: We play, we carefully evaluate and eye each other, we groan, moan and curse. In short the game lives. And with each new game we play we all discover little tricks and new possible moves to exploit. I'm happy, really .

Now the time has come for me to go knocking on some publishers’ doors...
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Ghislain LEVEQUE
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While reading this threads, I've learned a lot about your work and I was not surprised to learn that much beause I'm not a game designer or developer.

What surprise me the much is how "finished and polished" is your game before you even start knocking on publishers doors. Is it usual to go see publishers with such polished games or do you send them less finished games sometimes ?
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bruno cathala
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Good question

I always do to publisher with quite finished projects.

First impression you give is always quite definitive.
Publishers are higly sollicited. And you need to focuse their attention.
If you come with a project which is only at 50% of his development (or less), you can have a good idea but let them thinking that the project is just uninteresting. Even if you come later with a fully corrected game, they still will have this first feeling printed in their mind, and it will be really hard to convict them.

So, my choice has always been to show them finished games. They like them, or not, but i have no frustration, because the game is exactly the one i want !

Then, if they decide to gon on, i'm still open to work an some changes, or adjustments, depending on their feeling...
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