Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

UnPub 3 Part II: Pig Pen, Playtesting, and Post Position

Kevin Kulp (left) explains Pig Pen to Jesse
Catron (right) and another gamer at UnPub3
Pig Pen
I first met designer Kevin Kulp at Congress of Gamers last October, when he playtested "East India Company."  He'd mentioned his set-building card game Pig Pen, but I never got to try it out at CoG.  So I was glad to find him and learn the game in a three-player session.  Pig Pen is just a fun, crazy draw-one-play-one game of assembling a pig pen consisting of four fences or walls, a gate, and a feed card.  Once those pieces are in place, a player can draw a pig and keep it in the pen - at least until something bad happens, such as an opponent taking a chainsaw to your wooden fence or detonating dynamite on your brick wall.  Then you've got one turn to repair the damage, or your pig runs away, potentially into the waiting arms of another player.  Oh, the betrayal!

A number of special cards spice up the gameplay by making a sty more attractive to pigs, or making an attack on another player's enclosure more devastating.  Most of all, the game is great for laughs.  I had perhaps one comment for Kevin with respect to gameplay.  I thought that the spread of points among the available pigs is so broad that the game might be too luck-driven, from the standpoint that your chance of winning depends too much on which pigs you draw.  But that's not a strongly-held criticism, just a consideration for him to take into account.  Pig Pen is a squeal, and I'd love to wallow in another session.

East India Company - Five-player playtest
Five-player session of "East India Company"
Photo by Chris Kirkman, Dice Hate Me Games
My primary reason for coming to UnPub, of course, was to playtest "East India Company," and I was not disappointed.  I had two major goals to shake out with EIC - to validate the changes I had made to shorten overall game length, and to ensure that those changes hadn't watered down the competition among players.

My first game was a lively five-player session, mostly of teens.  Competition was not a problem in this game; they were constantly vying to beat each other to markets.  I was very surprised to see all five players open the first turn with building a second ship, a very aggressive investment strategy.  Beyond that, the game played out exactly as I've had in mind, with scrambles for goods and agonizing decisions over loans and bids for tariff rights and the start player marker.

The game clocked in at 135 minutes, right in the middle of my target range.  I came away from this playtest feeling very good, that I was much closer to being production-ready than I ever have with this game.

Post Position
By far the most fun I had at CoG last fall was playing the horseracing investment game "Post Position" (formerly known as "Pole Position") by "Dr. Wictz," the boardgame design team of Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz.  It was one of the games on my short list to go back and play while at UnPub last weekend, and I'm really glad not to have missed out.  There were not a lot of big changes from the last iteration of "PP," and I'm glad of that, because there's not much to improve.  Aaron and Austin did modify the ballot to vote how far to move each horse in each leg of the race, and it greatly simplified both the players' effort to tally the vote and the tabulator's effort to determine the results.  I'm not sure how, but they also made significant strides in reducing overall game length.

In our session of, I think, six players, I found myself overcommitted to covering the winnings of one horse, "T.T.," that clearly had a lot of backing and was going to have a strong finish.  Late in the race, I bought back my position for $11 a share from two players, essentially guaranteeing them the equivalent winnings of a third-place result (and protecting myself from having to cover an even stronger finish).  In the final analysis, I lost money on "T.T." when I bought back those shares, but (I reasoned) not as much as I would have lost if those two players had continued to vote for "T.T." to advance.  When the race was over, I came in a distant second with $108.  The winner finished with a commanding $136.

"Post Position" is a strong game that deserves further development.  It's something of a "guided party game" in its current instantiation.  If Aaron and Austin can streamline the mechanics in a way that make it easy for the average gamer to operate (and I think they're close to doing so), we should see Dr. Witcz ride "Post Position" in a run for the roses.

Designer Panel
One of the highlights that John Moller featured at UnPub 3 was a discussion panel of what he called "All Stars," designers who have had games at previous UnPub events that were subsequently picked up for publication.  The five designers that he invited to speak differ widely in personality and approach but all espouse a zeal for game design and eagerness to share their success with the rest of us.
The designers were almost embarrassingly complimentary and appreciative of John M. for his vision and effort in bringing the UnPub phenomenon to life.

As for their design experiences and advice, much of what the designers had to say was encouraging and consistent with much of what I've heard and read elsewhere.  In response to a question about how to approach publishers, Jesse C. recounted how he had done his homework about the kinds of products that various publishers had done in the past and emailed those most in line with the nature of his own game.  By contrast, Ben R. advocated for walking up to publishers in person at conventions and establishing face-to-face relationships.  I'm convinced that both methods are effective and important to practice.

Fortunately, my readers don't have to depend on my sketchy notes to gain the full benefit of the discussion panel.  John was kind enough to have the entire panel video-recorded and posted on YouTube.

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