The last couple of weeks have been good to Codename: Vacuum, last week I played it four times on Thursday twice at lunch with Dave, one of my core playtesters, and then twice in the evening at Games Night with Gav and His Nefariousness (my boss). During the four games I was thinking about (and yet not quite trying out) some ideas my friend Paul in York had had when I visited him a few weeks ago. I normally play it once a week on a lunchtime in the office, so four games in a day was pretty awesome (and a first! Clearly, I've not taken it to Essen or the UK Games Expo yet!). It was nice to get some steam up, play it a lot and get a feel for how it can differ between games. We found a few flaws that needed addressing and I got some useful feedback too.
This week has been another busy one, with four games again - this time spread between two days. On Tuesday, I attended my second Newcastle Playtest session at The Bridge Hotel. Dan the main organiser was away, but it was looking like there would still be five of us. Sadly Amo was feeling ill, and Michał's daughter wasn't well, so it was just three of us in the end. Olly who had come along to playtest and Paul, who had brought a game which wasn't in a playable position at the moment, he was about to make some sweeping changes after the feedback he'd received at the last session. And me. With Codename: Vacuum. So we ended up playing it twice with a discussion of Paul's game in between. We started off with a basic game (since neither of them had played it before) and then, with plenty of time to spare and no competition, we played it again, this time with the advanced rules. Neither Paul nor Olly had much experience of deck building games, but they both picked it up quickly and seemed to enjoy it. Again I asked them to email me some feedback when they got a chance. At the end of the evening we spent some time discussing the game, with both Olly and Paul coming up with some good ideas. Then we left and Paul and I walked into town together, still discussing the game. Paul's ideas really got me excited and have led to some big changes in the works. It was a hugely useful evening. Playing every week with regular players is great, especially when the game has so many cards and options, it really helps to balance things out; but for a big leap, you really need to get your game in front of new players and get a fresh perspective.
After Tuesday's big evening, Thursday was playtesting at lunchtime again and then Games Night in the evening. At lunch, Chief, Dave and I tried some ideas for simplifying the Trade mechanism that had come from Tuesday's feedback (quickly received via email - thanks Paul and Olly!). They didn't quite work on first attempt, but seem to be heading in the right direction. In the evening, Dave (again) and Gav (after more since last week) and Mike (who'd not played in a while) settled down for a four player game - which hasn't happened in a while. Again, the Trade simplification was all out of whack, but I still think that Olly's comment about the old way being to complicated was right on the money.
What I'm really excited about though is the ideas that Paul had/triggered regarding exploration. For the last six months or more, Vacuum has had 42 location cards representing places in the solar system that you can explore, capture and trade with. To explore them, you'd draw a number of cards from a deck and pick the one you fancied. Fairly standard mechanism in a card game. But the cards were always the same, and there were only 42 of them, so there wasn't much excitement to be had. Each location was potentially worth some points for exploring, some for capturing and possibly provided population, trade and/or defence. You looked at the cards you had drawn and choose the one the best suited your strategy (or least suited your opponents') and then revealed it. It then sat in known space until someone captured it.
Paul's comment that triggered all these changes I'm now working on? "In a Steampunk game, I want to be attacked!" It made me think about the way new locations come out. You choose which range you want to explore at, and then choose from a random selection of locations at that range. Doesn't sound very thematically accurate does it? "I want to send a probe to the outer solar system, I'll decide what to look at when I get there!" That's just how NASA work, honest.
So, I've decided to completely change things. There will be fewer locations, and they'll all be available from the beginning. You choose exactly where you want to go and send you probe there. Upon arrival, you'll encounter a random event which might provide an alien population, or a fight or a deposit of valuable minerals, or the loss of your probe. I'm hoping this will make exploring more thematically accurate, more interesting and provide more replayability as each game the location's events will differ. I'm also hoping it'll add to the theming of the game as a whole. My aim is to make a thematic game, not a dry themeless one, and lack of theme was the main criticism of Vacuum's first outing at Newcastle Playtest.
I'll not be able to play it for a couple of weeks while I make all these changes and assemble a new prototype, hopefully in time for the next Newcastle Playtest, but we'll see. Of course, when the new prototype turns up it'll be much less well balanced/possibly broken, so I'll have to start playtesting again almost from scratch.