Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: 4p

My 4P is complete!

On Saturday, I completed the fourth test of my board game Dungeon Merchants. This completes my 4P challenge!

Honestly, as late as Friday evening, I was doubting if I’d be able to complete it. I got a lot of notes from my third playtest, and I spent too much time doing work stuff because of an on-call week to put a lot of time into the game.

But I had a flash of inspiration on Saturday morning that I tossed in quickly: what if the players had to reach out to villains to acquire quests? The mechanism itself didn’t work well, but my playtesters suggested a good new direction for the game.

So for the next playtest, I will try to have the players work to match heroes to villains. I like this, because it has the “playing both sides” feel that Battle Merchants has.

It’s still pretty far from playable, but 4P gave me the kick-start that a month-long game design challenge should give me. And all the interesting stuff, all the strange corridors I got to try, and all the parts of the game that I saw that worked and that didn’t, happened after the first playtest. That’s totally out of National Game Design Month’s scope!

So you bet I’ll be doing 4P next year, and I’ll spend more time promoting it and getting more designers on board. I know that a couple of dozen designers started 4P, but I know of only two who finished it other than me.

How about you? Did you finish 4P?

4P week three playtest report

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?

4P week two playtest report

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?

4P week one playtest report

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!

How to “win” or “lose” at 4P

We are one week away from the first 4P, my challenge to all game designers (including myself) to playtest one game four times in a single month. Since you can “win” events like NaNoWriMo and NaGaDeMon, I figure you should be able to win 4P as well.

I was thinking of announcing something like “you win at 4P by participating in it,” but I just can’t bring myself to it. The point of of 4P is setting up a network of playtesters and getting into the habit of iterative playtesting, and you’re not going to do that by halfheartedly doing a single playtest with your Nan on January 31.

You win at 4P by playtesting the same game four times in the month of January, incorporating feedback from each session into the next playtest.

But alert readers will note that I am a big fan of failure. That’s why I named this blog Fail Better, after all! So, let’s flip that statement around. There is only one way to irredeemably lose at 4P.

You lose at 4P by not playtesting anything at all in the month of January.

This leaves us with an interesting middle ground: what of those of us who playtest between one and three times in January? On one hand, I don’t want people to not playtest because they don’t think they will hit the 4-playtest goal. On the other hand, there’s got to be some sort of challenge.

So, if you finish January with four playtests, congratulations! You have won the 4P challenge and you are clearly in a position to create a fantastic game.


If you finish January with at least one playtest, but fewer than four, then you still get my hearty respect and an attaboy.


If you constantly talk about your “great idea for a game,” but you playtested nothing and you had no extreme extenuating circumstances (like, hospital visits or sudden career changes), then you may want to rethink this whole game design thing. Your supposedly great idea is just an idea. It’s not a game. And don’t forget: your game idea sucks.


Don’t forget: if you’re in the NYC area, you can join me for my 4P playtests!