Board games Card games

Playtest again

I went to another meeting of the Playtest group in London yesterday (like last month), and again had a jolly good time. Despite the trains still being buses and most of the tubes non-existent. It made for about a 3-hour door-to-door journey, which is a bit much I think for a 75-mile distance. But hey ho, it was worth it.

This time I took along a game of my own, or rather of mine and T’s, to be playtested. We came up with the idea when we were on holiday in Sheringham a few weeks ago. We’d been musing on some interesting thoughts that one of the guys at last month’s one had expressed, about boardgame-as-story; and set ourselves the challenge of writing a game around the first suitable story that we could think of. Glancing out of the window we saw fishing boats, and so Fishy Business was born. We spent a morning designing it in rough, an afternoon making up a crude prototype, an evening playtesting it the two of us, and it worked surprisingly well. Since then we had a revision cycle, made a proper prototype and tested it on a willing victim (TheHattedOne), had another revision cycle, and then it was time for yesterday’s meeting.

  • So that was the first thing I did, ran a playtest of it on three of the attenders. And it went pretty well! They seemed to enjoy it, had some great suggestions, and overall were very positive. For this first game designed by this method, my only ambition really was to have it be playable and not actively boring (as my previous, mechanics-first, games have tended to be). So I count that as a victory.
  • Next up I played Alea Carta, by Valery. This was not a ‘hobby game’ at all, but a whist variant. Based on standard four-hand partnered whist, but before each trick the leader to it has the option of throwing a die whose result may make the values of some of the cards change up or down; so, for example, if you roll a 4, then queens and aces swap value, so do 9s and jacks, etc. I thought this was really ingenious and fun, but the other testers were a bit more ‘eh what??’ and got rather lost. I think to enjoy it you pretty much have to be sufficiently expert at whist (-type games) that all the stuff like counting suits, tracking the high card, reading your partner’s signals etc are all second nature and so games of plain whist have become predictable and dull.
  • Then Rob and I sqeezed in a quick test of a mini-game which will be used during Small Town Folks at Consequences in a few weeks. Won’t say anything more about it here, as some of you will be involved! Suffice to say it was a lot better than the last version we tested, and we’re pretty happy with it now.
  • Finally played Sailaway, by Michael, which is a family game. Quite traditional in style, it wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1970s. (He initially wrote it for BT some years ago when they were sponsoring some sort of sailing event, but it got canned when the event was called off.) You move around a board collecting pieces of ship to assemble a whole one. The clever and fun bit is that the central section of the board slides back and forth in response to players ending their turns on certain squares. So with slightly cunning play you can shut your opponents into creeks, cut them off from reaching the remaining boat components they need, and so on. It’s aimed at 6–9-year-olds, but 30- and 40-somethings will also have a great time with it, I can testify.

So basically, a great time was had, and I recommend it again. It was quite interesting that this time, apart from my own, I didn’t play any hobby games at all, but still enjoyed it hugely. Next meeting is on 18th Nov, although I won’t be able to make that. Do go along though if you think you might like it!

11 replies on “Playtest again”

I thought this was really ingenious and fun, but the other testers were a bit more ‘eh what??’ and got rather lost. I think to enjoy it you pretty much have to be sufficiently expert at whist (-type games) that all the stuff like counting suits, tracking the high card, reading your partner’s signals etc are all second nature and so games of plain whist have become predictable and dull.

Sounds very plausible. Indeed, it seems closely connected to the central concept behind the Jim Rossignol article I linked from G+ the other day. I’m finding this stuff very interesting at the moment, because it seems to come close to capturing an idea I’ve been failing to articulate properly for a while. Basically I don’t much like the current fashion for super-accessible gaming because it seems to result in overly simplistic games which don’t hold my attention.

Interesting article (the Rossignol one)! Mm, and I would extend your last point to things like Hide and Seek as well (unless you were already including that). It’s been quite illuminating for me in recent months talking with people who’ve come into that world from elsewhere than what I consider as ‘gaming’, and who thus perceive it quite differently.

Also related in some way to this area of thought, I think, although I haven’t worked out yet exactly how, are Fiasco and similar games. These games have very simple rules and very accessible themes. In theory, a group of people who like Coen Brothers films and have never even heard of role-playing could pick up a copy of Fiasco and have a great time with it, constructing stories together. In practice, though, the only people who play it (I believe) are veteran role-players of at least 15 years’ experience.

Hmm… I’ve never played Fiasco, but a similar remark could be made of “Once Upon a Time”. It plays best (and is much loved by) people with years of RPG experience behind them.

I’m quite fond of Hide & Seek‘s work partly because it feels more like research to me. It would be quite possible to run deep, complex pervasive games but before that can happen we need to understand more about how simple ones work. Maybe.

a similar remark could be made of “Once Upon a Time”

Yes, that’s a better example. I have actually played OUaT with non-gamers, and they essentially couldn’t see the point of it as an activity. And then, after much persistence and encouragement, once they got into how to use the materials, they ‘gamed’ it in the way that breaks it. (As, ironically, gamers mostly wouldn’t do.)

feels more like research

Yes, I’m sure it is intended that way by the organizers and I have respect for their aims and what they’ve achieved. But the mainstream press angle seems to focus on the “you get to run around making silly noises!” aspect: which, while helping to make the whole thing popular and successful, I think is bound to detract from any serious intent. In the longer term, perhaps fatally so.

(I suppose my criticism is that I’d have liked them to stay lower-profile for longer, while doing that research. I appreciate this is horribly unfair and could be mistaken for envious sniping 🙂

The trouble is mainly that they need the high profile to remain viable as a business.

Regarding “silly noises”. The year I ran a game at the Weekender (which I enjoyed a lot), James Wallis was there also running a game. It was some kind of storytelling game – I forget the details – which he advertised as being fun “with a drink or two”. He ruefully confessed later that this had been the WORST MISTAKE EVER as he was forced to run it all evening with a bunch of exceptionally drunk louts who were mostly incapable of playing it at all! (I find this story very amusing, for some reason.)

Heh, that reminds me of playing in the Baron Munchausen tournament at Gencon some years back, which he chaired. It was likewise billed as a game to drink along with, which we took seriously… but being roleplayers, we worked the increasing tipsy incoherence into the characters 🙂 Not sure how well it worked for the audience, but we had a great time!

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