Monday, April 15

An Interesting Conversation

It's been a busy week at Pope Towers. We had a friend's wedding (Chief, one of my core Codename: Vacuum playtesters), The Wife's birthday and then a busy weekend of among other things homebrewing. Despite all that, I've managed to get a game of Vacumm in, and made some more changes.

The April version of Codename: Vacuum is proving... transient. The last couple of versions have lasted a month or so without any changes, but my attempts to simplify things (addressing a common criticism) have been fairly sweeping, and fairly bad. I've tried a couple of things and they've come out incredibly un-balanced. I've had to quickly swap them out with new versions that rein them back in. Having said all that, I'm now feeling fairly confident about this new third version of the April edition - I think this one might be the best version yet. And, I think, the simplification attempts are bearing fruit too.

So anyway, to the subject of this post.

At Chief's wedding I was having a conversation with Gav (another Codename: Vacuum playtester). I don't remember exactly what we said, but I think I can piece together enough of the conversation (corrected for drunken blathering and weak memory). Gav was chatting to me about Games Design (my hobby) and iOS app design (his). He asked me a couple of interesting questions:

Is the Games Design itself what you enjoy or is the goal of a published game what drives you?

It's an interesting question and one that I answered in a more drunken, slurred version of this: I really enjoy the design. I love spending time crafting the hand-made prototypes and doing the layout and graphic design on the computer. I loved making the hand-crafted versions of Border Reivers and the first edition of It's Alive! - it was great being able to look at those finished copies and know that I'd made them, from scratch. Having said all that, I've given myself some goals and I'm working to get Codename: Vacuum finished. I want to get a game on the shelves, an awesome game that people will sing songs about in years to come. I want to be able to look at it and know that it brings hundreds or thousands of people pleasure. Which brings me on to the second question:

Why don't you think Codename: Vacuum is an awesome game yet?

Gav has played Codename: Vacuum five or six times. He seems to enjoy it, but he's not clamouring to play it. For him it's not gaming crack. And that's true of most of the other people who've played it too. They enjoy it. But they'd not play it for forty-eight hours without sleep or food. It's alright, not awesome. I think it's getting towards a good game (which is a curse in itself), but there's still a way to go before it's awesome. That's brought us on to the subject of why Gav is not clamouring to play it. As far as my hazy memory recalls, Gav said that he enjoyed it, but it found it hard to spot where he went wrong in a game and how to improve for next time, hampered further by the fact that each time he's played the game has been different with new cards and tweaked rules. There were aspects of the game he loved (like being really excited to take his next turn after the last one finished and the way your shape your strategy by crafting your deck and play area), but even after several games he didn't feel like he knew how to play better or what he did wrong.

I'm hoping that the newer simplified versions will go some way towards alleviating this problem and that if or when Gav plays again, things will have improved to the point that he can craft a strategy and then see what could be improved next time, or how someone beat him with a better strategy (not just the un-balanced game favouring someone else's strategy). Maybe what we need to have is a dedicated playtesting night when we can play it a few times to really get a feel for it without changes in between. I'll have to try and arrange one for after our upcoming holiday.

But also, I want to introduce Gav to some other deck-building games so he can see what Vacuum is competing against and note that the bits of the game he loves are not anything original or unique, others got there first. On that note, we're going to play Thunderstone (one of my favourite games) at my next Games Night on Tuesday.

P.S. Gav: I hope my poor memory and correcting for drunkeness haven't misrepresented you!


Hoopy said...

I think Vacuum is certainly more interesting than, say, Eminent Domain and yet it's not quite actually better. But interesting is surely a large part of what makes a game good? Really can't put my finger on the reasons - but I do want another go :)

Jack said...

Hiya Dave,

Interesting is good, as is 'want to play again'. I'm happy with not better, YET. It's still a work in progress...



Gav (from this article) said...

Hey Jack,

I think you've nailed the core of what I was saying (if I remember correctly). Vacuum has elements/mechanisms that I really enjoy. Those who know me (or have played games with me) - know that I get pretty excited when playing good games. Vacuum has this effect.

I _want_ to play my next turn. I look at what I'm dealt, pick a strategy, and I _want_ to find out if it's gonna work.

I'm no pro, but I do reasonably well as far as winning a share of games goes. I _want_ to win at Vacuum.

Jack mentioned in this post that I don't feel like I'm connecting with win/loss result of vacuum. That's true. From my view, some of that is the complexity; I feel I need to play a bunch more games before I can weigh up the options available to me. And some of it feels like balance-issues.

For those reading this blog, they'll know that vacuum is still being heavily iterated on, and that Jack has discussed both complexity and balance.

As I was trying to explain to Jack, the frequency of my play testing hasn't helped. I tend to get one go at a version. So there's been a change since the last one. At Jack's weekly games night, there hasn't been the opportunity to chalk up some back to back games, yet.

I recall the last game we played, it was actually a 1v1 vs. Jack. I was doing pretty well but made a blunder as I raced for an end-game scenario. That's the situation where I'd normally want to rematch right away, but it was 11.30pm on a school night, and Jack has a young child ;)

I'd definitely benefit from a dedicated session with multiple games. As above, there are elements to this game that I really like. I need more games on a single version. I need a win, too ;)

One thing that Jack didn't mention is that during the period in which he's been designing Vacuum, he's also introduced me to a bunch of new games that I hadn't played before. Consider things like: Village, Stone Age, Agricola, Lords of Waterdeep... all new, all competing for my time at a single, weekly gaming session.

That's tough competition.

Nice work dude.
Bring on Thunderstone then bring on Vacuum ;)

Jack said...

Hiya Gav,

Glad I've captured the core of the conversation despite the drunken fog! We'll get Thunderstone in tomorrow, I think you'll like it and it has a lot of similarities with Vacuum, so you can see just how derivative it is!