Monday, November 5

Codename: Vacuum Shaping Up

As I mentioned last week, I've finally got into the habit of playing lots of Codename: Vacuum.

Initially when creating a new game, I playtest solo (pretending to be two or more players), until I'm fairly sure I have something that could charitably be called a game. I don't enjoy this phase: for me, gaming is a social pastime, a way of spending some time with your friends. Sitting in a room pretending to be Jack, then Jacques, then Jaime and finally Jackie, before pretending to be Jack again, all the while knowing exactly what cards everyone has and what strategies they are all pursuing is not my idea of a fun evening in. But by the same token, I don't want to trot out some total crap that I've not even tested with anyone else in case they disown me and start blanking me in the street - a prototype has to at the very least work as a concept before I try it out with other people.

So then I start playing it with friends, or a dedicated cadre of hardened playtesters. They either like me, or enjoy playtesting (or, conceivably, both) and so are willing to cut me some slack if the game is a bit weak. Which it will be. But the only way to find out what the weaknesses are is to test it, and that's what friends are for. As you play it a bit more with other people who try different strategies and have different ideas you find out the flaws and have a chance to fix them. The game goes through more iterations, some better, some worse, but hopefully on an upward trend.

Eventually you are going to want to trot it out in front of real gamers, to get an idea of whether you game is awesome. If it's not, it's back to the drawing board, there's a boat load of mediocre games out there, and KickStarter has just lowered the hurdles to publishing, so it's easier to get a game to market than ever before. You don't want to be one of the dregs, you want to be one of the cream. At this stage your game still won't be awesome yet, but it has to pique enough people's interest to warrant further investment. Gamers playtesting your game have to at least see the potential awesome, otherwise they won't bother playtesting it instead of playing this week's new release. The sooner the game is in front of real gamers the better, but, if you do it too soon, instead of the word on the street being 'I playtested that, it was neat, and it's probably even better now' it'll be 'I playtested that last year, what a dreadful, boring, totally unbalanced waste of time'. Word of mouth is great as long as it's in your favour, so you have to time the exposure right.

Codename: Vacuum is currently still firmly in Phase 2. I'm playing it regularly with friends to work out the kinks before it hits the real test in Phase 3. But there's already some information available:


  • Thematically it fits together nicely, the cards make sense and I like the Steampunk to Sci-Fi transition. People get excited when they see certain cards, which is great.
  • It's a working game. You can play it with a strategy in mind from the start and there's plenty of strategies available. You have to interact with your opponents and modify your strategies to respond to them.
  • It's fairly quick, two player learning games are taking 45-70 minutes and three player games once we've all played it at least once are coming in around an hour.
  • It works across the player range. I wanted it to be 2-5 players, and having now played it with 5 players, I know it works across the whole range.


  • The game is still a bit longer than I'd like, ideally it would be playable in under an hour and around 30 minutes if you've a lot of experience.
  • There's a trade mechanism in the game, but it only really makes sense if you're trading with yourself (or at a push between yourself and the neutral player), I'd like it to be a more inter-player thing, but that will probably slow things down further.
  • It's still hideously unbalanced, and will remain so through the next several iterations I imagine as I make fairly sweeping changes between versions.
  • One of the cool things about Dominion is trying to work out which combos of cards from the set you're playing with this time will be the most powerful, having something like that feeling in Vacuum would be really cool. It doesn't have it yet.

In slightly better news, I've got a new version now, it's mainly addressing balance issues I've found so far, but it will inevitably introduce some more of its own. In addition to finding and fixing those, the other things I still need to work on are a more interactive trade mechanism and reducing the game length.

In starting to run before you can walk news, I'm now rather optimistically starting to think about how I can get the game to market (if I can get it into a great enough state). There's some small publisher interest or I could tout it to the big guys or even go it alone via KickStarter. I need to get it finished first though!


Scrabble online against computer said...

looks like an interesting game. I read the 'bad' comments. it's a shame that it doesn't encourage inter-player trading. that could be a fun aspect to this game I think if it had been emphasized or encouraged.

Jack said...


Yeah, I'm working on fixing that, but if the fix is too slow I'll leave it as a single player thing. Race for the Galaxy and Eminent Domain both have single-player trade mechanisms and don't seem to suffer from it.