Last Friday I drove to Chicago for a play test jam with my old pals Jeph Stahl and Greg Daigle, both sharp, successful, highly-respected designers. We all had new games we were eager to get on the table and dig into. I’d brought along Dungeon of Doom, with the hopes of fitting in a fourth play test session in January, to complete the 4P challenge.
Jeph and Greg are both familiar with an earlier version of this game and were eager to see what I’d cooked up for this new iteration, so I set it up and we got right to work. Jeph quickly zeroed in on a flaw I’d missed in earlier play tests and we worked through several iterations that afternoon, looking for just the right fix.
Throughout that afternoon, there was an issue we kept dancing around. I’d changed the resolution of the original risk-reward mechanism in this new version of the game and it just didn’t feel right. It had lost the tension that made the original so much fun. We proposed and tested several changes, but at the end it was apparent they were little more than band-aids.
Most of my changes from the earlier game were good, positive gains in the system, but this one was a mistake. I further confirmed this feeling in a play test this Tuesday at my Board Games & Beer game night. It was simply lacking that spark. Fortunately, swapping back to the original risk-reward mechanism (or something closer to it) is an easy fix.
Dungeon of Doom isn’t a finished game, but there is definitely a light at the end of this tunnel. I’ve got a clear goal for my next few play tests, and I think I can wrap this game up over the next couple of months.
I designed a game and play tested it four times in January. I’m very proud of that accomplishment.
I designed a game and play tested it four times in January. I’m very proud of that accomplishment. I’m incredibly happy with the progress I made with the design and I’m excited by the possibilities I see in it. I think people will have a lot of fun with it.
Four play test sessions in, and I’ve had breakthroughs and revelations in each. I have a solid system to build on and most of the heavy lifting is done. My next step will be to write a rules outline to hang words on. Then; more play testing, more play testing, more play testing.
4P Lessons Learned
The first play test of a rough design should be with other designers. You’ll have a lot of rough edges to work around and designers are best equipped to deal with warts on a game. Additionally, play test with players in your target audience early in your game’s development. They’re the people you’re designing for. If you listen carefully, they will help you make the game you want to design into a game they want to play.
Don’t worry about making your prototype pretty, as long as it’s functional and clear. If it needs art, borrow it online from games with similar themes or settings. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You’re going to be making a lot of changes as the game progresses. Don’t make anything you’d feel bad about tearing up and throwing away. Your modus operandi in the early stages is rapid iteration. Get it built and get it on the table. Fail faster!
The Big 4P Takeaway
I had a lot of fun with the 4P challenge, but my biggest 4P takeaway? I had four play test sessions in January! That’s one play test session each week. It felt practically decadent. It was wonderful! I’d love to continue that pace. I’m going to try to make that happen.
On Saturday night I plied four friends with awesome homemade pan pizza in hopes of getting them to play test Dungeon of Doom. The pizza worked its magic and the play test was a smashing successes! All four ladies had a great time while playing and it inspired a stream of comments and suggestions in the postmortem I could barely keep up with. Excited, energized play testers are a wonderful thing!
Getting my ducks in a row.
After the previous play test, I made a few changes to the prototype. I simplified the scoring by rounding the gold values on Monsters to even hundreds. To improve the odds of a successful Delve, I reduced the frequency of Canardo symbols in the deck. Additionally, I took the Magic Item cards out of the main deck and added ‘item draw’ symbols; now, when a player takes a card with the symbol, she draws a card from the Magic Items deck. I figured these updates would give me plenty of data to analyze before the final 4P play test. Race and Class cards, which allow players to break the rules in small but meaningful ways, would need to wait until those rules were rock solid.
On the night of the play test.
This play test started out, as mine often do, with me fumbling my way through the explanation, hoping I remembered everything. By the time we got through the first round, though, my players had grokked the system and we were off to a rollicking start.
Dungeon of Doom has some bluffing and press your luck elements and a very silly theme which combine to generate tension, laughter and a lot of groan-inducing puns. We were on fire last night with groaners so epic I had to write some of them down so I could incorporate them into the game later on. I’d share them here, but that would spoil the fun!
After the game, we talked about what worked and what didn’t, what they wanted to see more of and how the game play compared to previous versions of the system. More frequent access to Magic Items was big on everyone’s list, and I agree. The new system functioned, but I hadn’t added nearly enough of the ‘item draw’ symbols for it to actually work as intended and very few Magic Items entered the game.
There was one element that managed to surprise both my players and me.
There are a couple of Epic Monsters in the deck that disrupt the Delve when they appear. The first one they turned up took them completely by surprise; I’d sort of neglected to mention them when I explained the game. I could tell they were annoyed.
In the postmortem, their enthusiasm for them took me by surprise. At first, they explained, they didn’t like the Epic baddies interrupting their carefully planned Delves, but after they had a chance to reflect on it, they demanded more and various Epic Monsters! The wild unpredictability of them shot an extra thrill through the game that they really enjoyed.
I need to increase the frequency of the ‘item draw’ symbols. I’ll double it to start with, maybe triple, and I definitely need more Magic Items. Lots of possibilities here.
I’ll bring in a few more Epic Monsters. My play testers had some great suggestions for new Epic baddies and I’ve got some cool ideas of my own. I’m excited to get a few more in the game, but I will have to make sure they don’t become too disruptive.
Lastly, I need to finish writing and test the Race and Class cards. Simple, easy to understand and easy to use powers are called for here.
I’ve got at least one more, possibly two more play tests coming up this week, which I’ll post about here. And then? Then I’ll have won 4P.
I squeezed in a play test of Canardo’s Dungeon at the cabin last weekend, marking the second of four expected play tests for a successful 4P. I played with three players, the minimum I would have considered adequate for play, and it worked surprisingly well. There is, perhaps, less tension in the bidding phase with three, but it’s remarkably solid.
I’ve found some areas to concentrate on with the next play test; I’ve already adjusted gold values and reduced the frequency of Canardo’s appearances on the cards, but I’ve got new resolution mechanisms to test for item distribution and looting. Once I’ve got the core mechanisms polished, I’ll add in character race and class cards that allow the players to break the rules in unique ways. Fun!
A Name Change
Speaking of Canardo’s Dungeon, I’m changing the name to “Canardo’s Dungeon of Doom” or just “Dungeon of Doom” for now.
I heard from the publisher currently evaluating another of my games. I sent them a proposal in December and they liked it enough to request the rules. Today, based on the strength of those rules, they requested a prototype for further evaluation. Progress!
Over a year ago, I sent a proposal via boardgamegeek to a game designer I’ve never met for a collaboration on a dream project involving a game he’d previously worked on. I had no idea whether he was an active user or if he’d even get the message. Months went by and I didn’t hear back, so I shelved the idea and mostly forgot about it.
Last weekend, he finally replied. “Of course I’d love to work with you on [this dream project]”, he wrote, and gave me his email address. Thrill!
I’m buzzing with excitement!
I spent three nights in a cozy cabin in the North Woods of Wisconsin with seven great guys. Our annual Boys Cabin Weekend means different things to each of us, but we all look forward to a few days of relaxation and camaraderie, free from the pull of jobs, family and responsibilities. We hike, snowshoe or cross country ski. We do a little target shooting. We spend hours just reading. We talk and argue and laugh and listen to music. I like to use this time to work on game design and to play as many games as possible. Here are a few of my favorite moments from this weekend.