Thursday 25 January 2024

Game Design #104: Start Small, Keep it Tight

I often try indie games and wonder "my goodness, how much has this been playtested?"

Logically, the answer will be "not much." 

I mean, do you really think 'part time designer dad' has playtested each of the 70 special rules in his game? How many campaigns would he have played through from start to finish? 

In fact, how many games has he played, period - with a circle outside (even inside) of his/her own group of friends who may already have a shared expectation/knowledge of the game. In some cases, I'd be surprised if it was more than half a dozen.

Keep it tight. Stay focussed. Start small, expand later.

Example: Necropolis. It's a game where undead battle in spooky locales. It has a clear size limit (1-8 models) it has a clear theme. It plays on a small board. It has only ~5? warband types - which draw from the same ~10 base archtypes. The factions share similar traits, but just have access to different ones. There are 3 schools of magic, with 5 spells each. 

There is plenty of variety available, but the rules are pretty focussed and specific. It would be possible to to playtest quite a big range of combinations, given the small scale, 8-a-side nature of games. It's available from a Discord which by its nature tends to encourage chat/communication amongst players/testers.

You could see it expanding in the future, with extra spells, warbands and character archetypes, but it can build on a small, established, well-tested base. (I have no idea if it has, but it could)

It does not attempt to be a mass battle game and a skirmish game at the same time. It does not attempt to bridge genres. It just does one thing. Small scale, undead skirmish. It does not have 101 unique special rules for each mini and faction. Instead, all factions share a limited pool of special rules; with differentiation/flavour given by denying factions access to certain magic - not inventing their own unique special rules in an appendix somewhere.

It uses archetypes with examples of the minis you could use i.e. a "Revenant" might be a dessicated knight, a barrow monarch, a spectral martyr - it uses less/shared rules to cover multiple ideas/concepts.

The rules are pretty chaotically laid out, so the actual rules - about ~10 pages of  'how to play' are scattered through the book; but the whole shebang (campaign rules, traits, spells, etc) comes to ~50 pages. So it's not too onerous to have skim through to see if you want to try it.

While Necropolis, thematic as it is, isn't my 'thing' (also ugh, hitpoints) I'd be confident that if/when it released it, at least could have been properly tested.  It seems to have started with a reasonable scope/clear focus. I'd say this is a good example of a narrow, limited focus which is eminently 'testable.'

Campaigns are hard impossible? to balance. There are so many branching variables. I've spent a few blog posts agonizing over how to prevent things 'snowballing' i.e. the inevitable increasing gap between winner and losers. But I think I've ceased to care as much, as long as it isn't egregrious. I mean, a campaign that penalizes losers and rewards winners will naturally increase the gap between the have and have nots, but excessive penalties/rewards should be obvious just by reading the rules.  I.e. I recall in MESBG's Battle Companies, hobbit warbands get a 6-point hobbit as a casualty replacement, when the army of the dead warbands get a 12-point replacement. Wow, I wonder how that will go over a long campaign, when one warband gets a stream of reinforcements twice as good as a rival?

 But I reckon 90% of issues can be solved with having a clear campaign length (5-6 games), avoiding excessive penalties/punishments for win vs loss, and just not playing with assholes. The main issue with campaigns is:

Campaigns make is more obvious who players 'are'. It magnifies their personalities.

A competitive jerk who camps all game hiding and sniping your men and not trying for the objective? He may be glossed over if it is a one-off game - but if everyone has to play him over dozens of games, as he uses campaign bonuses to min-max his army to make his camping strat even more unpleasant? Yeah. 

A player who likes fluff and background will certainly take the opportunity to lovingly individualise, kitbash and customize each of his models and give them their own backstory for the campaign. Again, may not matter as much in a one-off game (and he probably won't go to the same effort): but in a campaign, lovingly kitbashed Wizard Uhtred the One Legged can be sniped by the competitive asshole in Turn 1 and he is gone for the rest of the campaign. Ouch.

Start small, start simple

A bit like background fluff, an indie game designer may be best served keeping things minimal. Tossing every cool idea/army/special rule in at the start makes things very difficult to playtest. 

I do science with teenagers and we always start with very simple experiments and change only one variable at a time. Start simple, add minimal extras. Make sure the core works. I know there are all these cool ideas, factions, weapons you have - but do we need them all right from the start?  Make sure infantry rules work first, then add vehicles. Avoid adding 'all the things.'

Tangentially, a very dense complex 'alpha' rulebook makes it less likely a playtester will bother to meaningfully engage with the rules. Speaking personally, I'm far more willing to try a simple alpha concept of 10 pages, than a 120-page magnum opus which has never actually been tested. Why should I spend hours reading something you probably haven't even tested properly yourself? It's like a little kid handing in a story they wrote but haven't even proofread themselves to see if it makes sense.

Stay focussed

Keep the game focussed. Was the sci fi space hulk game meant to have vehicles? Was the game originally meant to have 30 per side? Or did you originally intend for it to be only 10v10? Do you need to start with all 10 factions? Or can you start with 2-3, playtest them, and gradually add the others in later when you know the game works?

Limit rules exceptions.

Avoid bloated lists of traits and special rules. Use shared special rules, archetypes and stats. Have one rule do several jobs i.e. a single "blast" rule can cover an ice blast, fire blast, lightning blast - as long as the effects are similar. Use a "one handed weapon" rather than swords vs axes vs maces. Limit the exceptions. Make 'learning' the rules easy. Detail (if needed) can be added later.  I'm not saying rules can't be complex, or have many weapons/traits/factions etc. I'm just saying they should be avoided at the start.

It's also very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of 'rivet counting' weapons, traits etc. Once when working on an aerial wargame, I spent hours researching and "statting up" missiles - when my core initiative and movement systems had not even been decided. I had this big list of weapons, traits and special rules and I hadn't even fully decided how the core game should play! Or tested the core mechanics! Was it fun to create and research? Yep. Was it a good use of my time. Nope.

Campaigns are going to be nearly impossible to playtest thoroughly. Unless you have a dedicated group, it may even be impossible. I'd suggest campaigns need to be limited to a set amount of games and check you've avoided penalizing losers/rewarding winners too much (see: widening gap between said winners and losers) but the fun of a campaign is probably more dependent on the player personalities.

Do I need this rule/trait/faction - right now?

Like a lot of background fluff - with special rules, weapon lists, traits (aka rules exceptions or extra rules) is it needed yet (if at all) or it it just the designer enjoying exercising his creativity in an undisciplined manner? 

If you are working on homebrew rules, here's a few unpleasant? questions:

1. How much complexity/factions/traits/special rules/gear have you already added? Are they needed? How much had you written before you even tried to playtest your rules?

2. When did you last playtest your rules? How much more 'stuff' will you add in before you decide to do so again? (Will you change so many variables that it's impossible to compare old vs new versions?)

3. If you handed your rules to someone, would they want to read them? I.e. 20 pages vs 120 pages. How big an effort would an outside playtester have to make to even read your rules?

4. How much time do you spend on 'creating' weapons/traits/special rules vs 'testing' core gameplay? Have you minimized the 'rules exceptions?' (see #3). 

5. Are you drifting away/expanding from your core focus? (i.e. such as adding vehicles into a space hulk dungeoncrawler). Is there anything you can prune out?

If you just want to 'create' rules and don't want to play (playtest) your own rules, why would anyone else want to playtest or play them?

Start small. Test, expand.

(Note: this was written under the influence of COVID so the logic may be foggier than usual...)