4P week two playtest report

by Gil Hova

I’m halfway done with 4P! And this week was dicey: I got sick with a stomach bug last Tuesday, and spent two days in bed, with barely enough energy to sleep. So I didn’t get to work on the game until Friday night, and I stayed up until 2 am to make up for lost time.

Thankfully, the fixes I made from last week’s difficult playtest resulted in a much more solid foundation. The game’s base is now solid. The theme is solid, and integrates with the mechanism well. Players are interested in the implications of their actions, and there’s a lot of potentially cool decisions to make.

So: the game is now set firmly in the Battle Merchants universe, with a working title of Dungeon Merchants. The idea is that heroes and adventurers are tired of looking for quests in taverns, because the people they meet in taverns are sleazebags. So they have hired the players as agents to hook them up with the best quests in the lands.

I originally had come up with a bunch of new mechanisms from last week, but I had a hard time fitting them into the game. I found that if I simplified last week’s mechanisms a bit, they fit in well, and were surprisingly thematic. It was a serendipitous moment; I’d hate to think how the game would have played without it.  The players noticed it; one player who was in last week’s playtest noticed that the game was immediately more straightforward and easier to grok.

You’ll notice that I’m saying nothing about how happy I am with the game’s balance or rules in general. That’s because I’m not up to that stage yet; in both playtests, we only played the first third of the game before I called it. In both cases, I’d gotten enough feedback and seen enough of the gameplay to know what to work on next in the game. This, I believe, is the best way to design a game: start with its fundamental questions (Is it fun? Is it interesting?), then go to slightly more specific questions (Is it balanced? Does everything mesh?), then finally to tweaks (Are these given game elements overpowered?).

Balance is important in a strategy game, but I would not recommend addressing it until the first few playtests are done. Balance isn’t easy, but it’s easier than coming up with fun and interesting decisions. I’d say work on the fun of the game first, and then once you know you have something there, put in the balance next.

There’s one other thing I’m really happy with, and that’s 4P itself. I’ve seen a great response, both in-person and online. I estimate there’s about 20-25 other designers participating in 4P with me, and I hope that number grows next year.

It’s not an ego thing. (Okay, it’s not just an ego thing.) I want 4P to spread because I want to show new game designers how to best approach the design to a new game. This whole thing started as a response to NaGaDeMon, and I think the results are pretty telling, especially in my case. All of the interesting stuff for my game – the realization that the theme wasn’t working with the mechanisms, the retheme in response, the streamlining of the game’s mechanisms – all happened after the first playtest, which is not a timeframe that NaGaDeMon cares about. I spent two weeks in December prepping the game for 4P; had I spent a month prepping it for its first playtest, as NaGaDeMon encourages me to, that would have been two additional weeks I would have had to throw in the trash bin.

Trashing stuff that doesn’t work is a critical part of game design, and it’s crucial to getting the most out of 4P. Rather than encouraging a designer to get attached to work that may have to get trashed, 4P encourages people to iterate quickly. Focus on the playtest and its feedback, and leave the cosmetic stuff for when the dust settles a bit.

Also, I’m seeing my designer friends getting together more often. I won’t be in NYC next week to playtest, but one designer took it upon himself to invite the regular group to a special playtesting event then. Another designer is talking about hosting weekly or every-two-week meetings in between our monthly meetings. This is another effect I was hoping 4P would have: getting in the habit of frequent playtesting means meeting more designers and expanding your network. I don’t expect fellow designers to continue to test once a week, but I hope that they get more frequent playtests out of their work this month.

How is 4P going for you?