Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

UnPub Mini Chantilly Recap

Last Saturday, Keith Ferguson ran an UnPub Mini event at Game Parlor Chantilly.  (I helped a little.)  We had about twelve designers and about 20 gamers playtesting over the course of the 11 hours that the store was open that day.  It was about as successful as we could have wanted.  For my part, I got to playtest "East India Company" and "Reactor Scram" one time each, as well as to play about four other games, though there were many more I wish I could have played.

East India Company
(Clockwise from lower left) Carson Lee, Grant Greffey,
Paul Rice, and Andre Chautard playtesting "EIC"
I was lucky to open the day with my recently streamlined "East India Company."  Paul Rice, Grant Greffey, Carson Lee, and Andre Chautard were my playtesters in this first trial without tariffs, dividends, or the Caribbean.  The tile draws were particularly lean.  For most of the game, the only commodities that came out were the lowest-profit goods - timber, tobacco, and silver.  Ivory and spice came out very late in the game.  In fact, only two high-profit production tiles came up out of 14 tiles in the whole game - very unusual, given that a third of the tiles in the game are high-end goods.

The game ran so much more smoothly than previous playtests without the distractions of tariffs and dividends.  Although those changes reduced the range of the decision-space somewhat, the improvement in game flow more than made up for having fewer options for investment.  Turns went much more quickly, and players still had plenty of ways to spend their money, even with only cheap goods available for most of the game.  The game completed in less than 90 minutes, perhaps two-thirds the usual time of a four-player game.  Part of the shorter play time comes from having one colony fewer on the board, so that the game was guaranteed to end in no more than eight turns (as opposed to 11 turns when there were seven colonies in play).  Equally important, I think, though, is that the tariff and dividend phases did not interrupt game flow the way they did in previous versions.  We went straight from drawing a new colony tile and resolving pirates to the loan phase.

Also quicker was what I call the "Spartacus method" for conducting the Start Player auction.  Players held out a handful of coins and then revealed simultaneously.  Just like that, the auction was done, money changed hands, and we moved on to Ship Operations.  Time and again, I learn how important the turn sequence mechanics are to the flow of the game.

Another simple addition I made to the game was a player's aid in the form of a table indicating how much pirate insurance would pay depending on how many tiles had been drawn in the game.  I had got this recommendation from a previous playtester - I wish I could remember who - and it was such an easy solution to the problem of calculating insurance payouts.  The players frequently referred to it and never had to ask me to explain repeatedly how to compute it.

Streamlined "EIC" in action - no Caribbean, no
dividend track
A significant comment I got in this session was that players believed that ship values should count toward victory conditions.  I had previously resisted this idea for two reasons.  First, I thought it was an unnecessary complication to the calculation of the player's "net worth."  Second, I considered ships to be a "sunk cost" (no pun intended), an investment for the sake of improving income and not an asset that had intrinsic value.  But as the playtesters pointed out, being penalized for buying a ship late in the game distorts decision-making when players know that the end of the game is near.  An investment company wouldn't stop buying ships for the sake of the balance sheet if it still made sense to buy ships in the long term.  So I think I will add the full purchase price of ships to a player's final score in future versions.

I was also surprised that two of the players said they wished the game had gone longer.  I think I can understand that comment for two reasons.  Although there's a lot going on, the game is still at most eight turns long for a four-player game (start with six tiles on the board, end with at most 14).  Eight turns is not a lot of time to grow a shipping company.  Also, in this case, ivory and spice came out very late, and players had only a few turns to capitalize on them.  I think I will take this comment under advisement; I like the idea of finishing a game in an hour and a half, and I don't think playing one or two more turns would have significantly swayed the outcome of the game.

Another excellent comment I got was to add the price of building a ship to the actual ship counter itself.  Such a simple thing, and yet an obvious improvement to the available information in the game.

In this session, Grant was the winner with a net value of 22 Indies, having paid off his loans with spice profits one or two turns from the end of the game.  All in all, I'm very happy with the results of the playtest.  I'd like to test out this new version with different player counts and make sure it continues to hold up.

Movie Links
Andre Chautard then showed us his card game "Movie Links," which consists of two decks of differently-shaped cards - rectangular cards each with the names of a movie (and its leading actors) and circular cards called "links," each with some classification or category, such as "Guy Flick" or "Oscar Nominee."  The categories were color-coded into meta-categories like genre ("Romance"), explicit characteristics ("One-word Title"), or personal impressions ("I'll stop and watch this if I'm flipping through channels").

Each player starts with five rectangular movie cards and five circular link cards.  The game starts with a movie card in the center of the table.  On your turn, you play either a link card next to a movie that is arguably relevant ("Action" next to "Jurassic Park") or a movie next to an applicable link.  The idea is that the players will gradually construct a network of movies linked by shared characteristics.  Players have some latitude in sliding cards around, as long as they don't break existing links.  If a player can play a movie against two different links at the same time, he gets an extra turn.  If necessary, a player can discard a card and draw another.  The goal is to be the first to get rid of your cards.

Paul R. immediately recognized the importance of playing movies against multiple links, and since he was (I think) the only person to do it more than once, he won the game.

There is a certain degree of subjectivity to the game, and the rules actually state that if a player makes a questionable link, the other players can challenge him and put the question to a vote.  This social aspect of the game means that players have to retain the "spirit" of the game rather than play strictly to win; otherwise, every player would be arbitrarily challenged on every play and never allowed to play a card.

This was a nice, light game, done in about 15 minutes.  The "fun" came in talking about the movies and trying to remember whether one was an Oscar nominee.  Not a gamer's game, this would be good at a party or as an ice-breaker.

Escape Velocity
Close-up of "Escape Velocity"
Kiva Fecteau brought "Escape Velocity," a card-driven spaceship racing game with some slick-looking graphics and a nice sectional leap-frogging racetrack mechanism for representing a continuous loop.  Each player also has a clever "dashboard" card with magnetic needles on indicator dials for damage, fuel, and "quantum."  I tried this game out with Paul Rice and Stephen Craig, my good friend of many years who drove all the way down from West Chester, Pennsylvania just for this UnPub Mini event.

I found "Escape Velocity" to be generally fun, although there is a confusing distinction between which spaceship is furthest behind on the track and which is furthest behind in the race.  Although spaces are numbered to indicate remaining distance to the finish line, we still found ourselves scratching our heads to understand who was in "last" and whether a particular card was playable or not based on position in the race.  Also confusing was movement from one "lane" to another with respect to which space in the new lane the spaceship should move.  Perhaps the most chaotic aspect of the game is the card play.  Some of the cards were quite disruptive; one actually caused all players to shuffle their hands back in the deck and get new cards.

Kiva and her husband and co-designer Alf Shadowsong seemed invested in the chaotic and quirky character of this game, which will appeal more to the Munchkin/Fluxx crowd than the German plan-your-move types.

Post Position
"A.A." and "W.A." take an early commanding lead in the
first turn, while the rest of the pack bunches up.  "A.A."
was a crowd favorite for the duration of the race.

I'm a big fan of the futures market disguised as a horse race that is "Post Position."  I've written about it several times already, having first discovered it at Congress of Gamers last October.  Austin Smokowicz ran a seven-player race this time, and there haven't been any significant rules changes since the last time I played - just some streamlining to the mechanics of tracking bets among players.  I thought I'd done well by the end of the race, having finished with $142, but Grant bested me by four dollars.

The big challenge with this game will be communicating the rules.  Austin kept referring to the transactions between players as "bets," and strictly speaking, that's what they are.  But I tend to think of a bet in terms of odds, so that a long-shot will pay more if it wins.  Rather, betting "against" a horse is really making a contract to pay the other player the equivalent of that horse's winnings depending on how it finishes; betting "for" a horse is buying such a contract from another player for an agreed-upon price.  I think Austin and his partner Aaron Honsowetz will need to work hard on how to construct the pitch to a publisher.  Austin mentioned the idea of including with the rules a kind of illustrated player's guide to walk through a turn in the game, and I think that might work well to convey the concept of the betting contracts.

Horrible Hex
Close-up of "Horrible Hex"
I've mentioned before that every UnPub event seems to have a stand-out discovery, and I think the surprise hit for me of this weekend had to be the abstract tile-laying game "Horrible Hex" by Stone Circle Games.  This is Jon Moffat's really clever, elegant little two-player game of move and counter-move.  Keith Ferguson and I tried it out, and we continually tried to thwart each other's progress in completing our respective "goals," which are specific patterns in a shared array of tiles.  Each of us inadvertently scored for the other at least once, which attests to the tricky nature of this game.  In fact, I think we tied and had to go into a "sudden death" round to determine a winner.  (This was the only game I won all weekend.)

I really, really like "Horrible Hex."  Despite comparisons that it invites to another well-known hexagonal tile-moving game, I find it entirely original in its shared tiles, changing victory conditions, and tile-unique movement.  The game is a strong, tight brain-burner - very tense, very taut. Although I'm a sucker for Bakelite tile games, Jon says that their current intention is to keep production costs down by looking at more affordable materials for it.  I'm very eager to see Stone Circle Games get this one to market.

Reactor Scram
Carson and Austin strategize over "Reactor Scram"
I was very glad to get my new co-op game "Reactor Scram" in front of playtesters for the first time.  Brandon, Stephen, Carson, and Austin were the shift crew of the deteriorating Taftville Nuclear Power Plant.  The first game got away from them, as they failed to appreciate the cascading nature of a coolant leak.  The result was losing temperature control on a reactor and losing the game very early.  Fortunately, they agreed to set it up and try the game again to see if they could do better.

Reactor B has a mechanical failure on a coolant pump
(indicated by blue chips) while a meeple waits for the
reactor to be shut down so he can go in and repair it.
The second game was like no other playtest I've run of this game.  In the past, the game has always run very quickly; either the players get everything under control right away, or everything goes to heck in 15 minutes.  But this second game was completely different.  Disaster after catastrophe kept happening to the crew, and they would fix a problem and start to get temperatures under control when something else would go wrong.  At one point, they had four reactors cross-connected to share coolant and fill pumps - something that had never been done in any previous playtest but which made perfect sense under the circumstances.  But it took forever for the game to resolve.  They kept hovering between the losing conditions and the winning conditions - and because the game had no termination mechanism, no count-down clock, it went on for over 90 minutes.  Finally they had one coolant leak too many, and all four cross-connected reactors drained down to expose the fuel elements and damage the cores.

So clearly I need to incorporate some kind of game termination mechanism.  I also need to look at the rate that faults occur; it seemed just a little too merciless in this last game.  

The best compliment the game got, though, was when Austin said that he really felt under pressure to save the plant and keep it from catastrophe.  Even though he's not a nuclear engineer, he really felt like he was running a reactor plant.  That theme-driven decision-making is at the core (no pun intended) of the design, and it was really gratifying to hear Austin say that.  I really want to keep that essential design element strong in this game.

So all in all, the UnPub Mini Chantilly was quite successful.  I think all the designers got a lot of helpful feedback.  

Also, I may have beaten Keith in "Horrible Hex," but he beat me in the "race to post a recap"; you can see his UnPub after action report on his blog, Ad Astra.


  1. Termination mechanism for reactor scram can be simply shift changeover. If the crew can keep the reactor from going critical for n turns, they win.

  2. It might be that simple. Another idea I had was to set aside n "Fault" cards. If they can survive all n "Faults," they win. (As it was, they had gone through 26 out of 30 Fault cards by the time the cores finally melted down. That just seems like too much.)

  3. Good writeup; sorry I missed this. -- Frank