As I've mentioned in my last few posts, I've started designing games again. It's been a long time (for most of the time I ran Reiver Games I wasn't designing myself, just developing other people's submissions), but I've really caught the bug again.
I'm investing pretty much all of my games design free-time in Codename: Vacuum a tableau-driven, deck-building steampunk space opera (trying saying that ten time quickly!). The first playable prototype was finished a couple of weeks ago and saw action at one of my weekly games nights. It kind of worked how I'd intended but was too complicated and way too long (around two hours!). I'm aiming for the under-an-hour sweet spot that lots of games I really like (and a few I don't) hit. I'm thinking: Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, Eminent Domain, Dominion.
It turns out that my design principles are to start off with something way too complicated and then simplify over time - which reminds me of something Grant Rodiek designer of Farmageddon tweeted last week:
If my rules don't get shorter after I incorporate my changes from a playtest, I immediately assume I took the wrong path.
It starts off well in my head: Steampunk!, Space Opera, with spaceships, and combat and trading ..., and then gets a little bloaty: ... and locations, and science, and tech trees and pirates and the passage of time ... and then gets ridiculous: ... and you can choose what weapons your ships have, and what clothes your admiral is wearing and and whether you are going to trade bauxite or Martian elephant leather.
In the carefully controlled environment inside my head the game works like a charm - fast paced, fun with just the right amount of player interaction and decision making.
Then you play it with real people and you realise that the world in your head has no connection to reality at all. The game is slow, there's too many options, too many rules, whole chunks are non-intuitive, overly clunky or just pointless.
So you try to take what you've learnt and start again. You simplify things, take bits out, reduce the options, streamline this and cleanse that. Make a new prototype and try again.
That's where I am now with Codename: Vacuum. I've spent a good chunk of this week redoing all the cards on the computer, ready to be printed out again. Pretty much every card has changed, whether removing options, stripping out unnecessary complexity, trying to get things to make sense or have a purpose or just trying to improve the balance between all the various options. I hope to have the second prototype ready for testing towards the end of the week, either at my games night on Thursday, or at Beyond Monopoly! a games club in York that I used to attend when I lived there and will be visiting again for a first time in several years on Saturday.
Fingers crossed I'll find time in this hectic week to get it finished, printed and cut out. Then get it to the table (I've already had a few people requesting a chance to playtest it for me :-) ). At which point I'll find out that this new, streamlined, balanced version incorporating everything I learnt from playing the last hideously-broken version is way too complicated, too slow and hideously broken. At which point I'll have to start all over again!
Playtesting and developing a game is a long hard slog, at the beginning it's a case of four steps forward and three steps back. But, hopefully, over time you make progress and get to the point where it still mostly fits that vision you had all those months or years ago, but is slick, interesting, fun to play and you have people clamouring to play it when they see you. Will Codename: Vacuum make the grade eventually? I hope so, but only time will tell.