Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

CoG Unpub Protozone Report, Part 3

Finishing up my after-action report on the Unpub ProtoZone event at Congress of Gamers.
[Edit:  The "Dr. Wictz" design team has changed the name of their game from "Pole Position" to "Post Position," so I have updated it here for correctness. - PDO]

Post Position
Austin Smokowicz and Aaron Honsowetz
with "Post Position"
The Unpub Protozone was organized to have us designers pre-register to bring our designs in for playtesting, but in fact the event was actually pretty open-ended.  Two fellows I'd never met before, Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz, came in and asked Darrell Louder if they could get their game design playtested even though they hadn't pre-registered.  As it happened, there was an open table, so Darrell said, "Sure, no problem, go ahead and set up."  And thus the game "Post Position" was introduced to the Unpub.

Aaron and Austin's "Post Position" has every appearance of being a horse-racing game, but it is so, so much more than that.  Players participate in a Dutch auction to acquire shares in individual horses out of a field of twelve, and the top six horses will pay prizes to their owners.  But the fact is that owning a horse is just a small part of the player's stake in the winner.

The race is divided into five legs, and between legs, players can buy and sell contracts with each other to pay what would be the prize payout for a horse if it finishes in the top six.  For example, I could sell a one share of a contract on the horse "T.T." to Aaron for $10.  The contact stipulates that I agree to pay Aaron whatever he would have won from the track if he actually owned a share in the horse "T.T."  So for example, if "T.T." finishes first, then I'd have to pay Aaron $22, the amount of the winner's prize.  If "T.T." finishes sixth, I'd only have to pay Aaron $2.  And if "T.T." finished seventh or worse, I wouldn't owe Aaron anything.  So even though neither of us owns an actual share in "T.T.," the contract that I sold him for $10 means that we both have a stake in how "T.T." finishes in the race.  Aaron wants "T.T." to finish near the front (so I owe him more), and I want "T.T." to finish near the back (so I owe him less).

After a four-minute market period in which players buy and sell contracts among each other, players then write up secret ballots for two or three horses to advance one, three, or seven places in the field of twelve for the upcoming leg of the race.  Naturally, players who have a stake in a horse winning will tend to vote to advance that horse the most.  The secret ballots are revealed and the horses are advanced to determine the new order in the field.  Then another four-minute market phase opens in which players can buy and sell more contracts with each other to speculate on how the horses will finish.  This cycle repeats for each of the five legs - a four-minute market phase of buying and selling, followed by a secret ballot for horses to advance in the race.  The fifth and final leg determines the final order in which the horses finish the race and who gets paid how much.

Aaron and Austin demonstrate "Post Position" to three
new playtesters
I actually got to play "Post Position" twice on Sunday.  In fact, it's the only game I played more than once all weekend.  And I won both games, once with a substantial profit (going from $100 to $128) and the second by a much narrower margin (with only $108).  And I had a lot of fun.  Many of us did.  I think both races had six or seven players each, and once we got the hang of the mechanics, we all had a blast speculating on the horses and cheering them on.

I am very, very excited about "Post Position."  This game is a brilliant exercise in pure capitalism.  In fact, as it happens, Aaron and Austin are post-graduate economics students who put the game together as a model of the stock market - more precisely, the gold market crisis of 1869.  Sunday was only the second day that they had ever playtested "Post Position," and I was thoroughly impressed with the excitement, tension, and speculation that infused this game.  There are a few game design issues to work out, all of them eminently addressable.  Each race took about 75 minutes, but the designers' intent is that a complete game would consist of three races, so game length is a factor.  (A problem that I face as well with "East India Company.")  The processes of writing up the paper contracts, filling out the secret ballots, and resolving the horses jockeying for position are just a little cumbersome, so there may be some "process improvement" options for streamlining the execution of the game without taking away from the fundamental elements of speculation and race excitement.  But again, these are simple game-design problems that Aaron and Austin can probably fix without having to compromise the things that make "Post Position" so much fun.

Salmon Run
Yours truly, learning the way of the fish in "Salmon Run"
from the designer, Jesse Catron
Photo by T.C. Petty III
On several podcasts and blogs, I kept coming across references to Jesse Catron's "Pond Farr," which has since been renamed "Salmon Run."  On Sunday, I finally got to meet Jesse and play this game, which had generated a lot of positive buzz.  In this deck-building race game, players are salmon swimming upstream to beat each other to the spawning area.  In true deck-building fashion, players each have their own decks of swim cards for movement as well as other cards to attempt to set other players back with rapids, currents, and bears.  Various actions cause players to accumulate "fatigue" cards in their decks, which occupy space in one's hand but provide no benefit.

In our game, I managed to win a very close race with Tim Hing, T.C. Petty, and Darrell Louder.  "Salmon Run" reminded me of a simpler child's game from Simply Fun called Kayak Chaos, in which players are racing in kayaks down a stream.  But whereas Kayak Chaos is played with a common draw-one-play-one card deck, "Salmon Run" employs a deck-building mechanic that is elegant and fun.  Darrell even commented that he's not a deck-building game fan but really likes "Salmon Run."  I have very little experience with deck-building; I will confess that I don't even own a copy of Dominion.  But I really like what Jesse has done with "Salmon Run."
Darrell Louder, T.C. Petty III, Jesse Catron, and Tim Hing
just keep swimming in "Salmon Run"

Gryphon Games has picked up "Salmon Run," whose Kickstarter campaign has already successfully funded production more than twice over, even though it still has 18 days to go at this writing.

Bring and buy
The Congress of Gamers "Bring-and-buy" gives convention-goers an opportunity to buy and sell used games without having to sit at a flea market table.  I brought two boxes of games in hopes of recovering some shelf space in my house.  I managed to sell six of them, which I hope have found a second lease on life in their new homes:
  • Labyrinth Treasure Hunt, which I'd originally picked up at the PrezCon auction
  • Kayak Chaos, which I'd bought at the Simply Fun booth at my very first Congress of Gamers years ago
  • Ellery Queen's Murder Mystery Game, another PrezCon auction acquisition that I thought my wife the murder mystery writer would like
  • Angry Birds Card Game, a stocking stuffer one Christmas
  • Turn the Tide, actually not a bad card game but one that never caught on in my family
  • Roma, a well-reviewed two-player Stefan Feld game that for some reason fell flat for me
(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
For my part, I bought a copy of Traders of Carthage (designer Susumu Kawasaki, artists Peter Gifford and You Satouchi, publisher Z-man), which had been on my "must have" wishlist ever since my good friend Grant G. introduced it to me.  Kathy and I played it this evening, and we both really like it.  (Yes, dear reader, she beat me in our first game, 19 to 11.)  Traders of Carthage is the perfect size and game length for us, and I think it will become a regular.

Image (c) Dice Hate Me Games
Used by permission
The vendor "Our Game Table" was also at Congress of Gamers, and from them I picked up a new copy of Carnival (designer Cherilyn Joy Lee Kirkman, artist Chris Kirkman, publisher Dice Hate Me), which Chris Kirkman and T.C. Petty had demonstrated to me at PrezCon last February.  The first release by Dice Hate Me, Carnival was another game high on my wishlist, and I was very glad to find it.  I'm looking forward to trying it out with Kathy soon.

The next big thing
At the World Boardgaming Championships last August, Josh Tempkin had solicited my collaboration on a brand new game idea that he was working on.  We each spent the last couple of months just mulling over the concept, and this weekend we really started working in earnest on how the game might work functionally.  Since the game is in the very earliest stages of concept design, there's no point in discussing theme or mechanics here.  Suffice it to say that as "East India Company" is maturing into something approaching a final form, it's nice to have something new in the hopper to start chewing on and hammering out and mixing metaphors with to see what comes out.  I think it would not be too far gone to say that Josh and I somewhat kindred spirits in the universe of game designers, and so this collaboration might actually produce something fun.  And that would be very cool indeed, in a geeky kind of way.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the record, the Unpub: ProtoZones are developed to favor pre-registration, but are meant to be open enough to allow for walk-ins. ProtoZones are much looser than our Unpub: Minis which don't allow walk-ins and require the designers to be there full time. A ProtoZone is meant to happen at a Convention and is more open and forgiving, we're not the main event but part of a larger event.

    Thanks for the awesome write-ups Paul!