Last night I had Paul W and Paul G round to playtest Codename: Jorvik and Codename: Network. Neither of them had played either game before so I was keen to get some fresh feedback. One of the problems with designing games (or any creative effort for that matter) is you end up too close to the subject matter. I've been working on Jorvik for about eighteen months now, and while Network is a bit newer the development has been pretty intense over the last few months. While I'm fairly sure the games have improved, I don't know how good they are. Getting a fresh perspective on them was really good.
I'd made a new prototype for Network on the weekend, it featured improved quality components which are easier to play with, better artwork, and hexagonal instead of square tiles. The tiles sounds like a big change, but it wasn't really, the square tiles were intended to be placed offset (like brickwork) rather than a regular grid, so they were adjacent to six other tiles (remind you of anything?). After a game I'd decided I really liked the hexagonal tiles, they allowed you more freedom in the tile placement, simplified the rules, and I find them more aesthetically pleasing too.
We started with a game of Network. I'd only played this two-player with the recent changes, so it was good to get a three-player game in. After the first game we discussed what they liked and disliked about the game. Paul W didn't like some spcial tiles which allowed you to connect your network of support, and yet visually appear at first glance to be disconnected, Paul G felt that some of the actions felt like they should have a monetary component but the game didn't feature any money at all.
So we decided to play another game with a different set of rules. To counteract a bad starting hand I borrowed the draw six cards, discard two mechanic from Race For The Galaxy, we re-labelled the bonus points as money and gave everyone a few to start off with. We made several of the actions require 'purchasing', and we took out the special tiles that Paul W didn't like. These sound like fairly drastic changes, and they changed things quite a lot, but at it's heart it's still the same game.
The new game was quite different to play, much tighter. Generally I think I preferred it, but the starting layout meant that I, as the 'player in the middle' got trapped, and had to spend quite heavily to counteract that. This time I lost (16, 21, 22) which may be due in part to this.
Next up was Jorvik. As this is a two-player game I let the two Pauls battle it out while I sat back and watched. It was interesting to see how the card placement options available slowed things down for first-timers. Having played this verion quite a few times I can usually see a good (if not optimal) play pretty quickly, and I can set things up to work well with lots of the cards (as I know the card distribution very well). The game ended in a fairly low scoring draw. In some senses this is good (I normally score much higher so there's definitely some skill involved), but the draw is worrying. Most people prefer a winner.
At the end of the evening I got them both to fill in a brief questionnaire, we discussed what they liked and disliked about both games and some possible changes that might improve them. Generally feedback was positive and the experience was worth its weight in gold. Having playtesters fill in a questionnaire is really useful, it can be hard to tell from someone's description just how much they like a game, whereas a questionnaire is more objective.
I'm in Newcastle this weekend, where I'll playtest both games with a different bunch of people. It's beginning to feel like both games are getting there - which will be ready first? Hard to tell.
In a follow up, Paul W sent me some more considered feedback via email today too. Says he really enjoyed both games :-)