…also, totally what playtesting incorrectly can teach you. Last time I tested Verba, I played with my wife. It was her first time playing Verba; she had a vague idea of how it worked from tolerating me raving about it all the time, but her knowledge wasn’t as intimate as mine. When spending a lot of time calculating probabilities and doing solo testing, you start to take things for granted. You know how far you can push mechanics, and thus tweak the numbers to reflect his rulebending. In reality, it can be a lot different.
A really interesting challenge, that I think a lot of games don’t handle well, is the idea of the expert vs the beginner. A good gateway game levels the playing field enough where the beginner can still enjoy playing against the expert, but two experts playing don’t feel like the whole game boils down to luck. This is surprisingly challenging. Things I thought would be obvious plays turned out to be not as obvious as I had hoped in practice; this led to an imbalanced game between the expert and the novice. While I want to be fair to my wife and say she played better than I expected, she also didn’t make some decisions that I thought would be clearly better choices.
Co-operative or progression based games don’t have to suffer this as much. If you’re an MMO, it is much easier to gauge the average skill level of all your level 20 players. However, card games will ideally generate buzz that makes people want to introduce their friends. Keeping the game interesting for these new players will lead to a larger player base and added sales, both of which are important for continuing to produce the games you want. Letting the novice stand a fighting chance, but not making the game frustratingly random to the expert, is a delicate balance that takes multiple playtests to achieve.
So the publishing card game, Opes per Verba, came about in a car ride from Portland to Seattle to visit a couple of our good friends. (Hey Sara and Alex!) My wife was joking that for NaNoWriMo I should, instead, design a board game. I jokingly told her that sort of thing didn’t take a month of hard work, and I could do it before we arrived in Seattle. I could even do it about something boring, like book publishing. (Her masters is in Publishing, in case you were wondering why that was funny.) So Opes per Verba was born. However, it did foster a lot of good thought on theme vs fun.
One thing that frustrates me is when, in service to a theme, a lot of misplaced mechanics get slapped in to a game. I’m looking at you Android (or, more controversially, Battlestar Galatica: The Board Game). Without giving the pieces of gameplay a sense of purpose and giving clear connections between a mechanic and how it fits the theme, things feel disjointed and forced. It won’t necessarily slow the game down, or ruin the balance numerically. It can completely throw off the tone or the atmosphere of play, though. It leaves a player feeling like they’re jumping through hoops just because, without a clear understanding of how all of it fits together.
That all being said, sometimes you need to take your loyalty to the theme and let it go if it is getting in the way. Preserve the atmosphere but remove some complexity, perhaps. That’s what I had to do with Verba. A large part of the publishing business is in editing and marketing, but you won’t find either of those aspects in Verba, at least not yet. Adding that layer to the game made it feel sluggish and overly complex, when it is intended to be a fun, light game to play while you talk books over a couple beers. Streamlining the gameplay required omitting those aspects of the publishing pipeline in favor of a game that plays quickly, and the components that are there make sense with the theme. Thus, the game flows as intended and everything fits together. Theme and Fun are often in conflict; trying to stay on target for the best end result is an exciting challenge and game in itself.
So, how do you end it all? Sometimes it can be a tough question. In a game that isn’t focused on destroying the other players and watching their assets burn under a midday sun, sometimes the endgame can be a tricky thing to figure out. It is easy to say, “Well, the person with the most points at the end wins.” Well, when is the end? Is it based on exhausting a deck? A condition achieved by a player that triggers the final round? A finite number of turns? These are all well and good options, but choosing the right one is sometimes a tricky proposition. If you build a really solid game, but end it incredibly poorly, then the last thing players are going to remember is being bitter about how it ended.
Building in a system that fits the game mechanically and thematically, and lends itself to replayability and enjoyment, is crucial. Verba is built on the premise that being rich in the end is your goal. With a “known ending” system, such as deck exhaustion or a turn limit, it stifles the end game play. You don’t want to risk your assets because you know the game is about to end, and you need those assets to win. Also, it detracts from the competitive spirit as a clear victory will probably be evident a few rounds before the actual end. Monopoly is probably one of the worst offenders of this scenario; roughly half way through the game someone will have secured key properties and a large enough bank that there is a minimal chance of any outcome other than their victory. This is why Monopoly makes me want to shank someone.
This is why Monopoly makes me want to shank someone.
So we’ve got the option to end it based on a player achievement, like building all your districts in Citadels. The strategy in trying to draw the game out to get the big points versus rushing for a quick ending before opponents can prepare is certainly an exciting strategic choice, and works in a number of my favorite games. However, in Verba, it really doesn’t fit thematically. What would the player achieve that would, sensibly, trigger an end game for freaking book publishing. I thought about ending it with the publishing of the next cultural hit, like Harry Potter. However, if that was the case, then why not make the victory condition that rather than points? Since the game is about wealth management, and risking capital versus hoarding capital, it didn’t make sense.
So what’d I do? Well, I stole a good idea. You see, the ‘hot genre’ deck (name subject to change) cycles as the game plays. Pandemic has a great “mystery card” system with their epidemics, shuffled in to semi-random positions in a deck that gets regular draws. That fits perfectly, and it can even easily be worked in thematically. It gives reason to amassing the wealth (preparing your company for the digital revolution) as a victory condition, and provides a semi-set ending: shuffling the end of game card in to the bottom half of the deck means you know you have at least a portion of the game without worry, but once the deck starts to get close to half empty you might want to rethink risky decisions. It means that you don’t know the final outcome turns before it happens. It doesn’t work for every system, but for Verba I think it really fits what I wanted for the game.