4P week one playtest report

by Gil Hova

This Saturday was my first playtest for the 4P challenge. I brought a prototype I’d called Dotted Lines, the latest version of a concept of a multi-season sports sim that I’ve been trying to tease out in one form or another for the past seven years or so. This particular game revolves around sports agents trying to land their star clients on the best possible teams. I’d spent the last week working on solo playtests, trying to throw together some mechanisms that work well together.

The good news from the playtest is the mechanisms, while being nowhere near complete, have potential for being a good game.

The bad news is that the theme is clashing with the mechanism. I tend to design Euros with non-Euro themes, so this is a common issue for me. If I’d given the game a standard Euro theme (e.g. castle building, bloodless colonization, trading silk in the Mediterranean), that would signal to my players that this is a game whose focus is its mechanisms. Giving the game an unusual theme means that there’s an expectation for thematic gameplay, and my mechanisms, while sound, were simply too abstract for it.

So this leaves me with a choice…

  • Scrap the current mechanisms and look for something that matches the theme a little more closely.
  • Scrap the current theme and apply the mechanisms to a less specific theme.
  • Do both, and wind up with two games.

Of course, I’m going to do the third. Why not?

Now, you’d think I’d be upset about these developments, and that this was a “bad” playtest. And sure, I’m disappointed that my playtesters didn’t fall on their knees and genuflect the moment I taught them the rules, but this is what playtesting a raw design is like. To be honest, I wasn’t concerned by questions of game balance or component quality.

Game balance is important, of course, but it’s not as difficult as that spark of fun that your favorite games have. That spark is really hard to find, so I prefer to start by looking for it, and then working to balance the game afterwards. Starting with a balanced design and then trying to make it fun is a sure-fire way to make a functional but mediocre game. And of course, component quality is never a concern for early playtests. Why spend two weeks perfecting your game board when your next playtest may reveal that you don’t even need a game board in the first place?

So my biggest questions to answer in this playtest was: where’s the fun? How does this work as a proof-of-concept? Out of the entire design, is there only one tiny corner that’s interesting? I’m only concerned with the 30,000-foot view at this point. Refinement will come later.

So what am I going to do with Dotted Line? Well, on one hand, I’m going to read up on the business of sports agents and see if I can get any mechanical inspiration. On the other hand, heh heh…

I asked my playtesters if they could think of other themes that these mechanisms would fit. One player suggested putting it in the Battle Merchants’ cynical fantasy universe. I love the idea, and not just because it appeals to my inflated ego! There’s an opportunity to do something really cool and unique here.

I’m not going to bring up that cool and unique idea here yet, because a) I might run into a wall trying to realize it, and b) I want to make sure that I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes. Once I get those things out of the way, I’ll can chat about it a little more.

One more thing: I got a playtest of Prime Time in as well. It’s possible that I might get four playtests of that game as well, and I’m no less excited about it: it turned a major corner. The game’s balance finally seems tight enough that I can play it with non-designers, and now I can focus on tightening numbers and tuning individual cards, instead of worrying about bigger-picture issues and large rules changes.

I was also encouraged to see my friends setting out on 4P projects, and I’ve seen a bunch of people joining up on /r/tabletopgamedesign. Hope you also had a productive start to 4P!

Here’s to three more playtests!