Monday, September 2

The (Erroneous?) Need for Speed

Some of my favourite games are quick ones. I've played well over 200 games of Carcassonne & Magic: The Gathering, over 100 games of Race for the Galaxy and getting on for a hundred games of 7 Wonders. What do they have in common apart from being great games? Speed. They can be played quickly enough that you could play several games back-to-back. And in the days before The Daughter, The Wife and I would frequently play these games over and over.

One of my stated goals for Codename: Vacuum is to make it quick to play, so that if I ever get it to the point where it's a great game, people will be inclined to play it over and over. Over the last few months, even playing with Dave and Chief (who've both played over 40 games of Vacuum) the play time was around 25 minutes per player (50 minutes for a two-player game, 1:15 for a three-player game). Not only did I struggle to juggle my hours at work to fit these games in, in my mind this was failing to hit the sweet spot. I can play a two-player game of Race for the Galaxy in 20 minutes. I can play a three-player game of 7 Wonders in less than half an hour - these games benefit from simultaneous player actions, and as a result can be very fast with experienced players who don't suffer from analysis paralysis. That is hitting the sweet spot in my personal opinion. So over the last couple of months I've been trying to tweak the rules to Vacuum to pep it up a bit and decrease the play time.

The August version of Vacuum was finished in time for the inaugural Newcastle Playtest session at the beginning of the month, and since then I've been crafting the re-written rules ready to give my friend Paul in York an updated version of Vacuum, replacing the version I gave him back in April. Paul was up in Newcastle a few weeks ago to visit us and meet The Daughter, and during the visit I asked about their experiences with Vacuum. Apparently it had been played a number of times, but one of the major criticisms was that at around 45 minutes per player (!) it felt too long for what it was. No doubt! Clearly it needs knocking up a notch.

Well, we're in York for a few days this week for The Wife's work, so we're staying with Paul and his family, experiencing the wonders of his Games Night (which I used to attend twice a week regularly back when we lived in York). I've done the new rules, and though I didn't have time to make a new copy of the game, I can give him my copy, complete with new rulebook, and then I'll make myself a replacement on my return (once the pressure's off!).

I've now played the August version three times, once with two new players at the Playtest meetup (the impromptu second one, I missed the inaugural one), once with Dave a couple of weeks ago and once with Chief last week. The first of those games (with the simple rules) lasted about 45 minutes - 15 minutes per player. The second lasted 34 (17 minutes per player) and the third only 20 minutes (10 minutes per player). Awesome!

Or is it?

After I played with Dave a couple of weeks ago he expressed concern that the game was too short now. It felt less epic to him and he missed the chance to fully explore his chosen strategy (which is inevitably raining plasma doom on my inocuous backward empire with a wave upon wave of overly aggressive Armadas). His fear was the shorter game would strip several strategies of their usefulness, since you wouldn't have time in the game to get them started before the game's swift conclusion.

This week I played with Chief. He won. For the first time in approximately forty games. Dave and I were beginning to wonder if it would ever happen. Was he intentionally taking it easy on us? Did he have a phobia of winning games? (what's that even called?) Had he been lobotomised as a child, and had the winning parts of his brain removed? It turns out none of these. He won. He beat me at a game I'd designed. And he did it in 20 minutes. Schooled.

Dave's thoughts on his epic victory, after finally crushing the designer at his own game? He felt the game was too short!

I'd really enjoyed the game. We'd been flying through it. Each player's turn regularly taking a handful of seconds. Almost no downtime. It felt like playing Race for the Galaxy against The Wife or 7 Wonders with Terry and Andrew. Blisteringly fast. On top of that, Chief had chosen the Exploration strategy (which can be quite slow) and had got as far as Proxima Centauri, which is quite an achievement as it's particularly hard to reach and requires a real concerted effort to get there. "Ha!", I thought, "See Dave, even in twenty minutes, Chief managed to reach Proxima, the shorter game isn't too short."

Then Chief pissed on my chips and agreed with Dave that the game was too short. He enjoys the chance to explore a wealth of strategies and diversify your deck - possible in the longer game, but not in the new shorter version.

So here's a question. I've reduced the game length to my 'ideal' length. I enjoyed the feel of it the three times I've played it. But the two guys who've played it more than anyone else, who play it week in, week out at work, both don't like the changes. Do I cave in and extend the game again, to increase the epic feel, and the wealth of strategies you can explore in a single game? Or do I stick to my guns and ride with the shorter game, possibly admitting that the only two people who will regularly play the game with me might not be the target audience for the game?

I'm going to have to play the shorter rules a few more times, with Dave and Chief if they're up for it to see if they come round to the shorter game, but also with more people, to see if Dave and Chief are in the majority or the minority...

In other news, the second Newcastle Playtest Meetup is this Tuesday in The Bridge Hotel again. I'll not be there, but don't let that put you off!


Gavin said...

Hey Jack, there are probably a few things going on here that's clouding the issue (IMO, I'm no game designer!)...

With Dave and The Chief, they've wracked up 40+ games. Play testing or not, they've invested into the previous "style". They're accustomed to it. A significant change to the scale of the game could easily be a bit of a "shock". Not to mention, if I was The Chief, I'd want to beat you at the previous version I'd been sucking at, not this new, faster version :)

For yourself, you've got a specific time-goal in mind. You water to be able to play it "quickly". Making some changes that lead to a quicker game are definitely in line with that goal. Naturally, you'll be placing the changes in context of the overall game experience, but quicker play is something to latch on to.

For your friend Paul, he's an experienced game player, but has been playing with a not-yet-finished game, with a not-so-great rule book... Unlike your other play testers, he hasn't had the close interaction with the designer, whilst playing. Questions and ambiguities aren't easily answered; quickly answered. Weighing in at 40+ minutes per player is maybe longer than it would "normally" be. We're everything finished, or he'd been playing with you, he might have experienced 25/30 mins per player, rather than 40+.

Three opinions/data points, but all biased in some way. The ideal of course would be to have two versions of the game side by side, the longer, epic version, and the one target at 10/15 mins per player. Run those on two separate groups, large groups, and get a feel for which version is closest to the"great" that you're aiming for.

Play testing on that scale probably isn't an option ;)

You're the designer of Vacuum, what's most important to you? Over time you've developed a theme, the mechanics, a 'style' for the game. All that is Vacuum, to date. As it has evolved, it's been (I think) resisting against one of e key goals that you have - a quick game.

Is the current design at odds with a fast game?

I think you can make either work. The current game as it stands, in my opinion, is strong. Is on the way to great. I like the fundamental mechanism (it's better than Thunderstone, the mechanism, in my opinion) and its got the addictive "need to play my next turn, now"...

As you've asked in this post, does it matter that its not as fast as Race or 7 Wonders? Personally I don't think so. But I'm viewing that from an end users point of view. The end user has many games to select from, some short, some longer and some epic. I just one good examples of each kind, of each length category.

But you're the designer. In this debate, you're considering one game only.
- do you want to make a great game?
- or do you want to make a great game, that's also fast to play?

Pick one, then iterate to great ;)


Jackson Pope said...

Hiya Gav,

Wow! I thought my post might have been too long, but your comment is almost as long as the post!

Your points are all good ones, I'm aware that everybody comes with their own biases.

I think I'm going to have to slow it down a bit, but I don't want to slow it down much, I'd like it to be quicker than it has been up until a couple of weeks ago.



Gavin said...

Hey Jack,

on reflection, that was a long comment! Typed without haste, on holiday, it kinda just, kept going ;)

I've been absent from the recent Games Nights... next time I'm there, defo up for some Vacuum, and also Border Reivers!

Note, the first comment was type on an iPad - I've noticed a bunch of misplaced words. Oops!


Jackson Pope said...

Hiya Gav,

Vacuum on Thursday it is then. I've got to make a new copy - I gave mine to Paul!