January is rapidly approaching, and with that comes my annual game design challenge, 4P. Instead of other game design challenge that have some sort of conceit of “finishing” your game at the end of the challenge, 4P challenges you to test your game 4 times in a month, making tweaks between each test.
For the last two years, I’ve participated in the 4P program by subjecting one of my game designs to four playtests during the month of January. One of the rules of 4P is that, between playtests, the designer needs to elicit feedback from players, and incorporate that feedback into the prototype. The goal of 4P, unlike many month-long challenges, is not to finalize a design, but instead to make significant progress with it.
After a successful campaign with Smoke and Mirrors in 2015, I proposed a few ideas for additional games with Jason Tagmire of Button Shy Games. He countered with the idea of creating something meatier, maybe a 4X game. My immediate reaction was, “With only 18 cards?, That’s impossible.” But, a few weeks later, I realized that January was just around the corner, and this would make a perfect 4P experiment.
That’s one of the things about 4P. It’s not a large time commitment, and it’s contained within a single month. If, as I initially thought, creating a 4X game using only 18 cards was actually impossible, I would find out quickly. In any event, I would learn a lot.
In the first playtest (January 7, 2016), I saw which elements of the game engaged players. They enjoyed the banter, negotiation, and threats they could make while playing. I also learned to make every card exciting. With only 18 cards, there wasn’t room for boring planet powers.
Another advantage of 4P is the requirement of iterating quickly. It’s easy to theory-craft a game in your head and spend a lot of time fine-tuning a game that might not even work. This drives designers to make significant changes (doubling, or halving values on cards) rather than small tweaks which may not be noticeable. As a result, your questions are answered more quickly.
During the second playtest (January 15th, 2016), I learned that the non-planet elements of cards (e.g. “Discard this card for an effect”) were mostly ignored by players. On the one hand, I was a little disappointed, because I thought that there was a lot of design space to explore in this area. On the other hand, the playtester’s preference was too clear to ignore. Without playtesting, I might have spent weeks tinkering with this aspect of the game, but thanks to 4P, I could see that the best way forward was to drop this part of the game entirely.
One of the neat things about Universal Rule is the opportunity to participate in everyone’s turn. Whenever an opponent selects an action, you can “follow” that player by paying an additional cost. Sometimes, however, you either can’t follow (perhaps you can’t afford it), or you don’t want to follow. In this case, you get a consolation prize of 1 credit. While the concept of following was in the game from the very beginning, this single credit for not following was added during the third playtest on January 22nd.
Finally, it’s easier to get playtesters when I explain what 4P is, and what I’m trying to accomplish. Saying to my friends, “I’d like to work on a game that maybe, in a few months, I’ll be able to pitch to a publisher who maybe, a few months later, will want to publish, and which will finally, a year later, become a physical game” doesn’t have the same urgency as, “I’m striving towards four playtests before February begins.” As game designers, we understand the importance of sub-goals for driving player engagement, and 4P is a great subgoal in the game of designing games.
I hope you can join Chip and me for 4P 2017! No signup is required, no reporting is necessary. Just get those four playtests done!