4P week three playtest report

by Gil Hova

Three playtests down!

For the third playtest of Dungeon Merchants, I drove up to Albany for the always-excellent Spielbany game designer’s convention. Spielbany has been running for a good ten years now, so it’s one of the older game designer conventions out there. I had a tough decision this year, with UnPub 4 falling on the same weekend. This year, I chose Spielbany, because a) I hadn’t seen my Spielbany buddies in about two years, and b) I’d rather drive three hours than six hours.

Spielbany has a great mix of playtesters, and both Prolix and Battle Merchants have made huge strides there. I got to put both Prime Time and Dungeon Merchants through their paces.

It was Dungeon Merchants’ third playtest in 4P, and it was pretty rough. Kevin Nunn (one of my most influential game design mentors) has been posting an outstanding series on core engagement in your games, and it nails exactly what I’m currently looking for in Dungeon Merchants.

I have an idea of what Dungeon Merchants’ core engagement will be; I’ve seen glimpses of it in my previous playtest. But this playtest dragged, and players weren’t invested at first.

I like to design games that have a tight economy of currencies and actions. This game didn’t have any real tension to it. I would love my core engagement to be a difficult choice between precious actions. I have to tweak quite a bit to get there.

Also, the theme isn’t really there yet. This is supposedly a game about fantasy heroes getting tired of finding quests in taverns, so they hire agents to do that work for them. I want the game to have Battle Merchants’ cynicism, but right now, it feels like a pretty typical dungeon crawler. The only time when it has that Battle Merchants tweak is that agents can collect on insurance when one of the heroes they represent kicks the bucket.

One cool suggestion I got was to introduce some sort of reward for intentionally failing a quest. This would be similar to the “spamming” strategy in Battle Merchants, in that you’re intentionally setting up a side for failure, and profiting from it. I’ll spend this week trying to implement this suggestion for the final playtest.

Finally, I’ve been having players pull cubes from a bag to determine success or failure at quests. I’ve been doing that to allow players to “train” their heroes by buying success cubes before the quest. But I might try out a dice-based mechanism instead, and figure out some other way to encourage players to train their heroes. Dice might be more fun and tactile here, although cubes had their suspenseful moments.

You’ll notice all the concerns I have with the game right now are extremely high-level. I’m not even that concerned with game balance right now. I want to make sure there’s a potential for fun before I start sweating over balance issues. Why stress over making a mechanism fair one week if I’m just going to completely tear it out of the game next week?

I also had another crackerjack playtest of Prime Time. I made a couple of tiny mechanical tweaks, but most of the feedback was suggestions on how the final components should look, and two players wanted to play it again. It is lining up to be a keeper.

So, here’s to one more playtest next week! How’s your 4P home stretch lining up?