#8: Manipulative Maniac

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Today, I will be sharing a lesson learned in the form of a design journal entry. Yay!

This goes way back to June of last year. I had hit a lull in Top Deck development (meaning I thought I was done). So, I started mocking up a playing a new project I intended to be a space exploration and conquest board game but with simple enough mechanics and rules that my wife could play (she is smart enough – she just has no interest in the 3 hour mind breaking challenges that I find fun).

Easy enough, right? Make a space game with rules that can fit on a single sheet of paper and be played in no more than an hour. Well, a modular board would be a great way of improving replayability and give the sense of exploration. Cool! Eh, different paths to victory is an important game aspect to me. And the most clear way to offer that choice at any point in the game is by giving players the ability to upgrade different aspects of their ship depending on the strategy they want to pursue. Sure, I can probably include that. But, there has to be a point to all of this exploration and conflict. . . Resources! Ok, if upgrades require resources, where do they come from? The same reason for exploring – planets! Great, but how do I give resources to the players?

Well, now we begin the big problem and the lesson. Resources. I wanted players to explore the board, discover planets, conquer, and interact. I did not want players to sit, mine, turtle, and drill for victory in their own little world. Therefore, resources needed to be scarce enough that players HAD to move around and find multiple sources. Well, that means a resource deck (like a lot of space card games use) would make no sense without a REALLY complex system of multiple decks and / or multiple resource types. Complexity is my enemy, though, and players need a reason to look for planets. So, let’s tie production to planets. Up to this point, it has all been a mental exercise. Now, I have to build a prototype to test whether the ideas I have so far (modular board, upgradable ships, planetary conquest for money, etc.) would even work.

I built the mock-up at work and tested it right away. The first iteration began by starting players on individual home planets (a physical starting point AND free resources). Then, as planets were discovered through exploring new map tiles, players could stop and colonize them. Afterwards, the planet would crank out 1 resource every turn. Easy enough, right? I didn’t have many parts or much room, so I used dice – easy to add to, count, and move in large quantities. Speaking of large quantities. . . I was playing the test with Michael (you can find him in a few of my “Thank you” credits”) and 6 – 8 planets. The game only lasted 15 or so minutes because we just could not keep up with the dice manipulation. It is a LIGHT game! Our turns consisted of 1 action. We very quickly reached the point of spending much more time just turning all of the dice than playing the game. NO FUN. This is more than a problem with the physical aspect of my game. I had a broken mechanic.

Every turn, flipping 10 to 12 dice just so we then move 1 space STUNK! Setting the production of a specific player’s planets to their turn did not help. We experienced a secondary problem of too many resources. Within just a few turns, Michael was able to settle a second planet very near his first, and mine. Then research. Then mine. Repeat until he wins because he could afford ANYTHING. NO fun. I ultimately settled on a dice rolling mechanic similar to Settlers of Catan which broke the monotony and added a fun randomness.

BUT, the lesson is here is: watch your item manipulation! The example given is for a lot of dice in a game, but imagine playing Risk! with the maximum number of players, none of whom are aggressive (meaning nobody fights until they have no more room). Pushing all of those little figurines around the map when fights finally break out is no fun. All that time and care, all the effort it takes to keep them grouped together and counted. . .  ugh! This is not dependent completely on the size and heft of your game. Everybody understands that light games should be fast and easy. Even with a heavy game we need to be careful about too many moving parts. Time spent operating a game is time not spent playing the game. Personally, I don’t want to pay real money for a game, spend the time gathering my friends together, and then not play the game we just set up because we are too busy manipulating a few dozen moving parts.

I know that items to touch, hold, and move make a lot of games great (*cough*Euphoria!*cough*), but I hate having too many things to manage. What about you? What are some games you think involved too much manipulation (besides Civilization)? What games do you think nailed the balance perfectly?

Let me know what you think