Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

East India Company: Two-player playtest holds up well

My current game design work-in-progress, "East India Company," is intended for two to five players.  My
"East India Company" two-player session.  The prototype
board might be too "busy" and need some toning down
for clarity.
very earliest solo playtests were set for two players, and many of the coarse physical mechanics that I developed came directly from those very early sessions.  Since then, however, nearly every playtest has been with three or more players, and over time I worried that I had neglected the two-player case and that perhaps EIC would come up short in that smaller format.

So this evening my wife Kathy graciously agreed to try EIC as our cocktail hour game.  (Maybe the fact that I made mojitos helped to sway her.)  She played as the Portuguese, I as the Spanish.  She had not played EIC in perhaps a year, and I had made a number of rules changes since then, so it was something of a "re-learning" game for her.

One of the things I like about this game is the variability in the marketplace that is driven by the tile draws.  In EIC, which commodities are sold (and later bought) by different colonies around the world is determined by the tiles drawn.  A set number of tiles are drawn at the initial set-up, and then one more every turn until the game end is triggered.  I've tried to create an "evolving market" setting, and it worked very well in this playtest, as market chains started to develop.  Later in the game, North America was producing silver and buying tea, while India was producing tea and buying silver.  Kathy and I had each set up tariffs, however, which blunted the profitability of that obvious trading route to some degree - but not enough to actually dissuade us from exploiting it.  In those respects, I was very happy with how the market environment drove the dynamics of the game.

In early versions of EIC, a problematic element was Chinese production of spice.  Spice was originally so profitable that the entire game seemed to hinge on it.  In a couple of early playtests, the spice tile didn't come out until very late in the game (or not at all), which muted the overall economy and made the game less satisfying.  Other times, the spice market opened at the initial set-up and dominated the entire game.  I've since tweaked the spice tile itself and tailored the relative profitability of spice and tea to the other commodities, which has nicely balanced the market and improved overall gameplay.  In today's session, spice never came out, but tea and ivory played significant enough roles that we never missed the spice.  In fact, since the distant China market was a relatively minor player, neither of us invested in a large full-rig ship to make the long China run; we each made do with medium galleons for our major investments.

Spanish and Portuguese ships have unloaded tobacco, silver, and ivory in Europe.
So the bottom line from today's playtest was that the game mechanics themselves proved to be largely very sound.  The game took about 100 minutes, which is right in my target range for the two-player version.  All the notes I took had to do with the physical components and the way that the rules and mechanics are communicated to the players.  I need to add movement information to the ship markers.  I need to clarify several elements of the turn sequence on the player's aid card.  I think I need to modify the terminology for the "Loading" and "Unloading" phases - perhaps call them "Buying" and "Selling" phases instead, so that it is more obvious to the players what they can do during those phases.  Also, looking at my prototype map with fresh eyes, we both realized that it is actually very busy and confusing, so I think I'll go back to the Photoshop graphic and tone down those "historical flavor" elements that don't add to the actual gameplay.

One rule that Kathy challenged was the utility of tariffs in a two-player game.  She felt that they might be an unnecessary complication when so many alternatives exist for places to buy and sell commodities, given how little competition there is between two players.  I'll take that question under advisement; I think the tariffs add some tension to the decision tree in a good way, although I am mindful of Lewis Pulsipher's continual enjoinder that a game design isn't done until there is nothing left to remove.  The tariffs might be a candidate for removal if they are more of a complication than an enhancement.

Most of all, after several months of making little progress on EIC, today's session breathed new life and enthusiasm into my attitude toward this game.  I have had some recent setbacks in getting components printed for additional prototypes, which had taken some of the wind out of my sails.  Breaking out the game for another playtest has got me excited about it again, and I'm eager to get it into final form for submission to a prospective publisher.

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