Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, April 15, 2016

UnPub 6: Adjustments to "East India Company"

"East India Company" demo at PrezCon 2016:
(l. to r.) Darrell Louder, T.C. Petty III, Paul O.,
Matthew O'Malley, Jessica Wade
Photo by Chris Kirkman
I had demonstrated "East India Company" to a publisher at PrezCon last February, and came away realizing that the action cards I had added since UnPub 5 last year still needed some balancing.  I was also dissatisfied by the amount of down-time I observed (although the players hadn't complained about it).  In anticipation of UnPub 6, I made three significant changes:

  • I modified several of the action cards, particularly those that had negative effects against other players to make them less damaging, and increased the cost of the "Aggressive Captain" card, which proved more powerful than I realized
  • I re-vamped the turn order sequence significantly.  This was the second major change to turn order in the interest of playing time.  Instead of "Ship Operations" (which included new ship construction) followed by "Selling and Unloading," I restructured the first two phases as "Voyage" and "Shipbuilding."  Without going into details (which would be meaningless to anyone who hasn't played the game), the change made the turn flow more intuitive and less choppy and made for less down-time between turns.
  • I changed the ships available for building.  For as long as I can remember, the ship that held the most cargo was also the fastest, and therefore significantly more expensive than any other, whereas the smallest ship was also the slowest.  Almost as an experimental change, I inverted those characteristics, so that the largest ship is now the slowest, and the fastest ship now has the smallest cargo space.  That made the prices for construction much more in line with one another, so that the player is faced not with deciding whether to take a loan and spend more money on a bigger ship, but on which ship characteristics to trade off - capacity or speed.
These were the changes that I brought to UnPub 6 last weekend for testing.  I was a little concerned that I had made so many simultaneous changes, so that it might be difficult to diagnose which had caused any unintended consequences.  I decided to proceed assuming that the changes are "orthogonal" to one another, i.e. that they affect different aspects of the game and are unlikely to overlap in their effects.

I ended up with three playtest sessions at UnPub 6 - two five-player and one four-player.  One playtest ended up in an unlikely but devastating scenario - neither of the two most valuable commodities came available for the entire game.  The result was a "bear market," one in which the players found it very difficult to make a profit.  At times players were inclined not to send ships to sea because they would only lose money; that's exactly the kind of situation I want never to have happen.  So starting with the very next playtest, I modified the initial set-up procedure to guarantee that China would produce tea at some time during the game. 

The action card modifications seemed to be spot-on.  Nothing seemed over-powered, although in some cases players ended the game with a number of unplayed cards.  Those leftover cards might indicate that the players considered the cards under-powered relative to their cost to put in play.  In hindsight, I should have specifically asked that question at the end of the game.

The turn-order change seemed to work very well.  Players intuitively grasped what they could do with a ship on a turn.  I was concerned that placing a "voyage marker" on a ship after it was done would be a cumbersome mechanic, but it worked very well and definitely eliminated any confusion as to which ships had moved and which hadn't.

I was most concerned with the changes in the available ships for construction.  As it happened, they worked very well.  Players were more inclined to build the smaller, fastest ship than the largest, slower ship, so I might re-visit the pricing, but not by much.  The result established a much broader decision space in which the players could work.  I didn't realize how much the previous ships skewed and narrowed the available options until this UnPub.

Verbal feedback from the players indicated that several were dissatisfied with the way the start player token is managed.  They didn't like the fact that the person who wins the auction keeps the token and continues to go first until someone else takes it in a subsequent auction.  This rule is relatively old and well-established from previous playtests, but this UnPub was the first time I'd had that comment.

Game length concerned me most from these sessions.  I ran a stopwatch against the four-player game (the first time that I've remembered to do that), and the game ran 133 minutes, which is about 40 minutes longer than I want.  The other two games also seemed to run on the order of two hours.  My old problem of duration has crept in again, despite the "voyage phase" turn order change.  Based on previous feedback not to reduce the number of turns, I still have work to do to streamline the individual turn execution.

After the event, I reviewed feedback on the UnPub site.  Of 14 players, seven submitted feedback forms.  The numbers were not good in general, and there were some pretty honest, forthright criticisms as well as some recommended changes. One wanted to be able to sail around the world (a suggestion I've seen before but don't like) and one wanted money to be hidden (which I also don't like but will consider if it becomes a factor).   I'd like to think that everyone enjoyed the game, but that turned out not to be entirely the case.  Still, the whole point of playtesting is to identify what doesn't work.  That's what makes UnPub such a unique opportunity.

I've settled on two changes going forward, in addition to the set-up change that I adopted during UnPub (guaranteeing that "China produces tea" is in the tile bag):
  • To streamline the New Colony phase, which is when pirates can strike, I'm eliminating insurance altogether.  That was a rather complicated rule and it meant at least one more player decision almost every turn.  I liked that the "Armed East Indiamen" action card obviated that decision for the player that used it; all his ships were protected from pirates permanently.  So I'm going to make the ship pieces two-sided - one with cannons that costs two coins more to build, and the other side without cannons.  During ship-building, the player can decide whether to arm the ship or not.  Also, whenever an unarmed ship is in Europe, the player can decide to pay two coins to flip it to the cannon side.  Then I'll remove the "Armed East Indiamen" card from the game, and effectively every player can arm any ship to render it invulnerable to pirates or not.  I'll remove the insurance rule altogether, which will streamline the whole New Colony process.
  • To eliminate the Start Player auction while keeping the opportunity to buy it, I'll give the Start Player the option to set a price for it.  If he doesn't set a price, it will rotate to the player to his left.  If he sets a price for it, the player to his left may buy it from him for that price or pass the opportunity to the next player.  If no one buys it from him, he pays the set price to the player to his right (who will go last again) to keep the Start Player token.  This procedure will eliminate the auction but force the Start Player to put up money to keep the token every turn or else allow it to rotate.
So "East India Company" remains a work-in-progress, and UnPub 6 provided an opportunity to continue to improve it.


  1. At first blush, I like the idea of cannons, and getting rid of the insurance mechanism - I think you're right in that it will take out one decision, and potentially speed up the game - maybe...you'll have to see if people agonize over the canon decision.

    I'm not so sure about the new start player mechanic. I fear that may add more time form the current auction, as you have to go around the table and see if each player will purchase it. However, the fact that the start player will have to pay something to keep it is intriguing. That may cause some indecision as the start player hems and haws about what to set the price at. I see it as being a bit similar to arranging the rooms at the start of each round of "Castles of Mad King Ludwig"

  2. Keith, you might be right about the start player mechanic. We'll have to see how it works, and whether it's better.