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Monday, October 8, 2012

Congress of Gamers: Unpub Protozone Report, Part 1

This weekend saw a two-day session of game design playtesting at the Congress of Gamers in Rockville, Maryland.  CoG was the venue for an Unpub Protozone event in which several designers convened to have prototypes playtested and to compare notes on game design, development, and publication.  I had a terrific time with a number of energetic, imaginative game designers and saw some clever prototypes.

Movie Plotz
As I mentioned yesterday, I started with "Movie Plotz," a social co-operative game by Alex Strang.  The premise of the game is that players are working together as a creative film screenwriting team to put together a sales pitch for the movie.  One player starts by coming up with a simple declarative sentence of the form <subject-verb-object>.  Then the player to the left draws a card from a deck of film elaborations, reads the instruction on the card, and adds a specified kind of embellishment to the plot description to make the movie more interesting.  Then the next player takes the next card in the deck and further embellishes the movie pitch.  The play continues to pass to the left, and the movie description gets progressively more elaborate and outrageous.  The players "win" if they can get through the entire deck while remembering and keeping all the modifications and embellishments they have made to the movie since the beginning.

In our game, I started with the sentence, "A dog wears a sweater."  Kevin Kulp continued with, "A dog wears a sweater, but the sweater has gone missing."  Eric Englemann's son further elaborated, "A dog wears a sweater that has gone missing, and the sweater is actually the dog's sister."  We went through the entire deck and ended up with something really preposterous.  I couldn't possible recount the final version of our "dog sweater movie," but it had something to do with the dog recruiting James Bond to help retrieve the lost sweater from aliens occupying an abandoned Roman fort in Afghanstan that the local insurgents had turned into a UFO base.  And I think the aliens were afraid of dogs.

Suffice it to say that "Movie Plotz" is a hilarious game that takes very little time to play but makes for a great social exercise.  I suggested that it would be a good mechanism for a team-building event in a corporate setting, and Alex said that he had already applied it successfully in that context.  Normally I don't like social open-ended creativity games that "make up a story," because they feel too unstructured for my left-brained rules-lawyer game-mechanics engineer-designer head.  But "Movie Plotz" works very well, and we had a great time with it.

East India Company
Next came the highlight of the weekend for me personally, the playtest of "East India Company," the first in its new prototype form.  Alex Strang sat down for the rules explanation, but had to step out unexpectedly, so Brad Smoley stepped in for him, along with Kevin Kulp, Tim Hing, T.C. Petty III, and Darrell Louder.  I had made a few rules modifications since the WBC playtest in August.  I tempered the effect of the pirates (making them steal the cargo but not the ship).  I gave players the option to start with a medium ship and less cash instead of a small ship and more cash.  And I modified the "China buys timber" tile to read "China produces spice" on both sides, so as to increase the likelihood of introducing spice into the market.

Every "EIC" game session is different, largely by design.  The colony tiles are intended to gradually form a supply-and-demand market that varies within a structured framework.  Lower-priced, more common commodities with smaller profit margins usually (but not always) emerge in the Atlantic colonies while higher-priced, more profitable products come out in the Indian Ocean and Chinese colonies.

Yesterday's round evolved in a very unusual way.  Timber did not become available until very late in the game, despite being the most common commodity in terms of tile count.  Ivory came out almost immediately in West Africa, which resulted in market saturation and price depression in Europe.  The game end was not triggered until the last possible tile draw, when all 18 tiles outside of China were drawn before the second China tile came out.  And China never did produce spice.  Most colonies only purchased silver or ivory, so that all tobacco and most tea could be sold only in Europe.  North America was the only source of tobacco.

English (red tokens) tied for lead in
dividends but burdened by debt to
European banks
Photo by T.C. Petty III
One exciting trade route opened up, and T.C. Petty's English company was in the best position to exploit it.  South America was producing silver and buying tea, while India was producing tea and buying silver.  The two colonies are so far apart that a medium-sized ship takes two turns to make the trip, but T.C., the only player who invested in a faster, large ship, could make the run in half that time.  Although late in the game, T.C. made so much money on the silver-tea run that he paid back a significant backlog of debt to the European banks as well as substantial dividends to end up in a strong second place.

But strangely, it was Darrell's Spanish company that won the game without buying any new ships at all.  He had started with a single medium ship, and early in the game he took the Gulf Stream to North America and picked up load after load of tobacco.  Most of the other players were preoccupied with the ivory and silver markets, which would normally be more lucrative, but they were saturated by the middle of the game.  By contrast, European demand was able to keep up with Darrell's sole supply of tobacco, so he was always able to sell it at full price.  He varied his strategy as other markets opened up, but he was able to pay dividends early and often and never went into debt, so he finished with a strong cash position.

I was very glad to have this playtest session for three reasons.  First, the game took way too long, about four hours and 20 minutes.  So I am back to struggling with game length.  Now, in this case, there were five players, and the very maximum possible number of tiles were necessary to trigger the end of the game, and there was quite a bit of rules explanation since the game was new to all five players, so I can consider 4:20 to be an "upper bound" - the maximum any game could be expected to last.  Still, it's way too long.

Second, I am very concerned that Darrell won without buying any ships.  That result suggests that under the current rules, buying ships is not cost effective.  The counter-argument is that T.C. had a strong second-place finish with a large ship, but in fact a number of player's ships, including some of T.C.'s own other ships, sat in Europe empty because people did not have enough operating cash to load on the ships and send them out to colonies to buy goods.  So I think I have to revisit the ship cost-vs.-benefit situation.  One suggestion I received is to provide for "upgrading" a ship, perhaps by treating it as a source of lumber for the new ship (rather than having to buy lumber for every new ship).  Now, this game might have been unusual because no cheap lumber was available from colonies, so all lumber for ships had to be bought at higher European prices.  Nevertheless, I like the upgrade idea and will probably incorporate in the next iteration of rules.

Third, despite the game length, everybody spoke very highly of the game.  I got tremendous positive feedback on the fun and intensity of the game.  I have no doubt that "EIC" will end up a real winner, once I solve the (perfectly fixable) problems that came out.  I was very, very gratified to have such thoughtful game designers and players really bang on this game in a good, thorough playtest session.  I can not overstate the value of yesterday's feedback and interaction.  It was truly a great day.

Alex Strang posted a number of photos from Congress of Gamers, including shots from "Movie Plotz," "East India Company," "Phobos," and "Diamond Ninja."

Upcoming post topics:

  • Up on the rooftop, quick, quick, quick: "Diamond Ninja" and Alex Strang's dangerous business of Ninja time travel
  • We, Robots:  Mining and making money in Brad Smoley's underground caverns of "Phobos"
  • Gentlemen, load your weapons:  Dice-rolling derring-do in Josh Tempkin's game of gearboxes and gunplay, "Death Dice Rally"
  • Coming out of nowhere:  Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz introduce their horserace-investing game, "Pole Position," which emerges as Sunday's surprise Unpub entry.
  • The fish are jumpin':  Jesse Catron's "Salmon Run" (nee "Pond Farr") and the not-so-lazy river
  • Sales and acquisitions - more shelf space and new options for cocktail hour gaming
  • Collaborating with Josh Tempkin on the next big thing


  1. Thanks for posting on your development. East India Company sounds exactly like the kind of game I would love.

  2. I cant wait to actually try EIC properly! Being British, I can actually relate to some of the theme. (Paul, if you want me to ever help put together a playtest event for it let me know).
    Your idea for Movie Plotz as a corporate team building exercise is hilarious, specifically because that's how it all started! I often used that game to get execs to open up and engage in brainstorming, then it took off in its own direction. I even have a 'live event ' version.
    I am glad COG was successful for you. It was well-organised affair, from what I could tell!

  3. Thanks, FarmerLenny! I've had a lot of good feedback so far.

    Alex, thanks for the playtest event offer. I hope you get a chance to play it all the way through. (Maybe it won't take four hours next time...)