Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, January 25, 2013

UnPub 3 Part III: Three players, four publishers, and plenty of pancakes

East India Company - Three-player playtest
Ben Rosset (left) and Stephen Craig clearly enjoying the
game playing excitement that is "East India Company"
Late on the first day of UnPub 3, designers Ben Rosset and Stephen Craig joined me for a three-player game of EIC.  This game unfolded in a couple of unusual ways.  Ben gradually built up his fleet until he had four ships - two small, two medium - and fell into a pattern in which his four ships went to four different colonies, bought four different goods, and returned to Europe to unload all four ships in the same turn.  It was kind of an odd cycle, but it worked, because the diversification of commodities meant that he wasn't competing with himself.  Stephen tried a couple of different things before he eventually invested in a big ship and started making the long China spice run.  I think he might have made that trip twice by the end of the game.  I decided to try the "chaining markets" strategy of buying tobacco in one place, bringing it to another colony that bought tobacco and sold ivory, buying ivory to bring it somewhere else that bought ivory, and so on.  My method must have worked, because I ended up winning in a pretty narrow range of scores.  Although the game ran 150 minutes (a little on the long side for a three-player game), I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

Stephen's large green Portuguese full-rig has just
unloaded spice (black-bordered counters), while
Ben's four blue French merchant ships have delighted
Europeans with a variety of goods from overseas
Ben made an interesting observation, however, that might make me revisit the dividend track.  Now, I don't think I've changed how dividends work since, oh, probably the second version of the game.  It's the same now as it was back in the August WBC playtest.  But Ben contends that money spent on dividend points in any but the very last few turns is probably wasted money - that the return on investment with ships and goods is consistently better than what amounts to a marginal gain of two bonus points per dividend declaration.  He might be right, but my hunch is that it depends on the markets that are available in the game at the time.  It could be that if a lot of ivory and tea are available, then ships are a better investment, whereas if the market is just timber and tobacco, then a player might as well get ahead on the dividend track rather than risk losing money in ships.  I might actually be reduced to running some numerical analysis to see whether the opportunity cost of dividends varies depending on the market tiles that come out or (as Ben suggests) consistently exceeds their bonus point value.

Also significant in this game was Stephen's discovery of the phenomenal profitability of spice, an observation that he put to the ultimate test in the four-player playtest the next day.  More on that later.

Breakfast panel with publishers
(Left to right) A.J. Porfirio, Bryan Fischer,
Chris Kirkman, and Dan Yarrington
Sunday morning brought pancakes (with special thanks to the volunteers from the St. Thomas More Academy Drama program) along with the second of two discussion panels that John Moller organized as highlights of UnPub 3, pointers from four publishers on how game designers might best realize their dreams of making their boardgame inventions into reality.  Panel members were familiar names in the growing independent game publishing business:
Panelists discussed how they handle submissions, intellectual property, Kickstarter, and what it takes if you think you want to self-publish.  The message was remarkably consistent among the panelists:  They are eager to see new designs, but they need them to be fairly mature prototypes, not just "ideas for games."


John M. had the whole thing (well, almost the whole thing) video-recorded so that you don't have to rely on my feeble memory for the salient points of the discussion.

Skewphemisms
Before my next EIC playtest, I was looking for a quick game, something new.  I happened upon Chris and Suzanne Zinsli of Cardboard Edison who were just starting up a session of their parlor game "Skewphemisms."  Right away I could tell that this would be a fun party game that my family would like.

The game consists of a large deck of cards, each of which has a common phrase that one player, the "reader," is trying to get all the other players (except one), the "guessers," to guess.  (I probably do not have the role names right.)  There is also a sand timer that the "reader" and "guessers" have to beat.  The only clues that the "reader" is allowed to use are listed on the card.  The fewer clues that the "guessers" need before someone gets it right, the more points everyone (except one) gets.  The "hook" in the game is that the clues are alliterative phrases that are roughly synonymous or suggestive of the phrase being guessed.  For example, "lard leopard" is a clue to the phrase, "fat cat."

I like the way that roles rotate among the players, similar to Apples to Apples.  I also like the way that there is a third role, the "stealer," who has one chance to score big if no one else can guess the phrase after the time runs out, similar to Family Feud.  In our play-through, when I was the "reader," I could not for the life of me get the other players to guess my card.  Clues included, "sacred salmon," "almighty albacore," etc.  As soon as the timer ran out, the "stealer," Stephen Craig, said, "holy mackerel."  He ended up winning the game handily.

I have no doubt that "Skewphemisms" is a winner and deserves a publisher.  The only hang-up is that we usually guessed the phrase quickly and then found ourselves waiting for the 90-second timer to finish emptying so that we could start the next phrase.  If Chris and Suzanne can work out this minor item, I think they'll be ready to pitch.

East India Company - Four-player playtest
(Left to right) Chris Kirkman, Darrell Louder, and
Darrell's considerably better half, Lesley Louder
(Standing in the background is Katherine Cole,
who helped playtest EIC at WBC in August)
I was very pleased to be able to marshal together four people who had played EIC before and had expressed interest in playing it again - T.C. Petty III, Stephen Craig, Chris Kirkman, and Darrell Louder.  All game designers, these four had played the game at different stages of its development, and I was interested in seeing how their previous experience would affect their approach to the game the second time around.

I really enjoyed watching these game-playing minds at work on EIC.  The bidding on the start-player marker alone was thrilling to witness.  I saw it change hands between T.C. and Darrell several times, and I think Darrell made a profit on it each time.  T.C. meanwhile made a point to tariff tea wherever the market opened up, and I think I could see Chris grinding his teeth every time he handed that tea tariff over.

Darrell had won the playtest at Congress of Gamers with what I later called the "Quiet Louder" strategy.  At the time, I'd given players the option to start the game with a medium ship and less cash.  At CoG, Darrell exercised that option and just sailed back and forth between North America and Europe, shipping tobacco for most of the game.  He never took out a loan and never invested in another ship.  He ended up winning that game, which made me realize that I needed to adjust the ships to motivate investment and risk-taking.  That tactic did not pay out quite so well for Darrell this time.

T.C. Petty III (left) and Stephen Craig contemplating
how to dominate the world markets in tea and spice
Stephen was the one who seized on the key strategy in this game, however.  The set-up included the "China produces spice" tile, and Stephen immediately understood the significance of that.  (That tile had not come out at all in the WBC playtest last August.)  On the first turn, Stephen upgraded his small brigantine to a medium galleon.  On the second turn, he took out two loans and upgraded his medium galleon to a large full-rig.  On the third turn, he set sail for China, and over the next six turns delivered three shipments of spices to Europe.  His loans were paid off by Turn 4, and he was unstoppable by Turn 8.  I have now dubbed this procedure the "Spicy Craig" gambit, and I will need to make some adjustments to be sure that it doesn't become a degenerate strategy.

I was pleased that the game wrapped up in something like an hour and a half.  I didn't keep track of how long the game ran, but everybody seemed to feel that the timing was right, that the length was good and it seemed complete.  I really think the game duration is tight now.

Discussing the game with Chris Kirkman (center)
and Darrell Louder (right).  Photo by Scott King
After the game, I discussed the design's maturity with Chris, and we agreed that it's pretty close to being ready to consider for publication.  I have to work out what Chris called "the China problem," and we both agreed that I need to look closely at Ben Rossett's concern about the dividend track.  (In this last playtest, players declared dividends at a moderate level; it's hard to gauge whether they were a worthwhile investment relative to the opportunity cost.)

One lingering concern that I have, too, is that every playtest has been "guided," i.e. I've been sitting at the table, explaining things as we go along (but not giving much advice).  Fortunately, though, I've found that if I sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut (or get distracted by a side conversation), players keep right on going with enough understanding to continue the game as if I weren't there.  The next big step, I think, will be truly blind playtesting, so it's time to make sure that my rules are written well enough for that challenge.

About Turn 5 of the four-player playtest.  Spanish tariffs dominate the tea markets, and cash-laden ships occupy Indian harbors to buy more.  A large red English full-rig, having unloaded spices in Europe,
prepares to return to China for more.

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