Monday, September 16

Day of the Vacuums

Thursday was Day of the Vacuums, it's like Day of the Triffids, but more mineral than vegetable. It was Games Night that evening and Gav had expressed an interest in playing Codename: Vacuum again, and I'd arranged a Vacuum playtest for the lunchtime too. I managed four games of Vacuum and learned a lot and got a load more ideas :).

The lunchtime playtest session was with Dave (one of my core Vacuum playtesters), and we'd been discussing the idea of a fixed number of rounds that had come up the previous week with Paul. I'd suggested that we try out the fixed number of turns that lunchtime, and picking a number out of a hat, said to Dave: "How about 16 rounds?". Dave was convinced that would be way too short (we never track the number of rounds, so neither of us had any idea really), so Dave countered with: "Why don't we play a game where we both race to finish it and record the number of turns it lasts, if it's really quick, we can always play another game straight afterwards."

So that is what we did. We played a game where we both were consciously racing to bring in the victory conditions early (and hence end the game early since the game ends when a given number of victory conditions have been chosen). The game lasted 23 mins and only 13 turns. Dave crushed my Italian empire, through military might (his standard tactic!). With only 23 minutes gone, we decided to press on and play again, this time we were going to not rush, not drag it out either, but neither of us would go for the conditions early. The second game lasted 19 turns and about 50 minutes. It felt a bit slow to be honest. Dave won again, against my Italians again, and again he had gone military. There are some very powerful military cards in the game, the 'Armada' a fleet of advanced warships which can nail pretty much anything else in the game. The Armada is a level three card, of which there are only four copies in the game, so Dave's strategy is to get at least two of them as quickly as he can. He does it every game, so I know it's coming and when facing Dave I try to do the same to ensure I'm not outclassed. I got the first one, and then Dave got another. I was sat looking at my hand a few turns later, knowing that I could get a second Armada on my next turn - ensuring I would be on level playing field with Dave. Then Dave got two that turn, before I could get my second. Dave now had three to my one, and I was cruising for a severe bruising. Unsurprisingly, Dave played aggressively, stealing my territories and won handily again. I really didn't enjoy the game that much. Getting beaten to the drop on the Armada's pretty much stuffed my game right there at the start. And to be honest, that was largely down to luck of the draw. This was something that needed addressing. Interestingly, my guess at 16 rounds for the fixed game was right in the middle of the 13 & 19 rounds of the two games we played (Dave was suitably chastised!).

That evening at Games Night, Gav requested to play Vacuum with me, and The Nefarious Doktor M (my boss from work) was happy to join in. They had both played before, several months ago, and Gav had previously enjoyed it, but Doktor M had seemed less keen. We played a three player game that was over fairly quickly (I think about 35 minutes from memory), and had much less to do with the military, Doktor M got two of the Armadas, Gav and I one each. There were a few scuffles, but nothing major on the combat front. When the game finished, the other table was still only halfway through their game of Thurn and Taxis, so Gav requested to play Vacuum again, and Doktor M acquiesced. The game was heavily trade based, since that was what the advanced cards favoured. In this game, none of us got an Armada, and only one of us got the next rung down: a Warship. The military didn't really feature at all. I won both the games in the evening, not surprising, since I'd played at least 65 games of it, and Gav and Doktor M had played no more than five each, and those several months ago at that. Bizarrely, I was Italy for the third time that day in the final game.

It was great to play Vacuum four times in a single day (a first!), and to really get a feel of several different strategies. I was glad to see the two evening games were very different from the lunchtime ones. It was nice to see the military feature so heavily in the first games, and then hardly at all in the evening ones. I don't want it to be a killer strategy that if you don't play, you lose.

After the games we all had a chat about Vacuum and the various strategies, and yet again there were loads of really good ideas floating around. I want to do something to either stop players getting all the Armadas, or to reign in their power once they've got them. We had a bunch of ideas:

  • Increase the number of level three cards, so it's much harder for one player to mop them all up.
  • Require a level two card when purchasing a level three card - this would slow down Dave's rush for all the Armadas.
  • Armadas have an upkeep that means you can't afford to support loads of them (unless you're very wealthy).
  • You need a given number of locations or population per Armada.

I'm keen not to clutter up the rules with more special cases if I can help it, or more requirements and fiddliness on the actions. Ideally the game would become more streamlined as time goes on, not less so. I'm leaning towards trying out the increased number of cards as a result. Initially I chose four each of the level three cards to artificially force players to follow different strategies (in a five-player game you can't all get one!), but that was ages ago, and I'm not sure there's a good reason to limit them any more. In addition, the feedback I got from the Newcastle Playtest session last month included a request for more level three cards, so I've got external support for that option. Of course, I don't want to increase the component count by much either.

At the end of the evening, people were still discussing Vacuum. I was knackered - it was gone 11:30 and I'd been up since 5:20am, so I kindly requested that they sling their collective hook so I could get to bed. A few minutes later I got a text message from Gav: They were still outside the house discussing Vacuum. :)

In other news, the Newcastle Playtest sessions are now on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. So see you at The Bridge Hotel from 6:30pm this Tuesday?

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