Today marks the 10th test of Barbarus, a game I've been testing for exactly a month. This is exciting, as I feel I can finally dig in. With this 10th test, I feel the structure I have is simple, the decisions compelling, and the core mechanism is front and center.
This means I need to challenge all of those assertions and begin kicking the snot out of the design. Far too many folks give in too early, and I think it's a real disservice to your good ideas to not let them steep for a very long time.
The core premise of Barbarus is simple: every player is using a finite pool of coins to gain the powerful First Consul role, declare wars, and bribe barbarians to win those wars. It is a game of hand management and blind bidding, which makes it a well-tread premise, and a good explanation for why the game has reached a decent place after 10 tests.
The game has seen a few fairly significant iterations. On multiple occasions I've had to take a step back and slap my turn structure to be unified and simple, because on multiple occasions I've tested a game where each phase had a different turn order and discard rule, and it was confusing as all get out.
I also had a solution for limiting the number of conflicts, but then had to layer on multiple supplemental systems to keep everyone involved. This led to a really strange and arbitrary game where many people were playing, but everyone felt siloed. Had to fix that.
I sought to make the game work with 3-6 players, which is a really long range of people. I had to cap it at 5, which simplifies a great many things and I don't think hurts the game's appeal too much.
In many areas the game has struggled with a wide range of points and money. For example, the money used to go from 1, to 1000, then in increments up to 25,000. This made the 25,000 absurdly powerful and the 1,000 effectively meaningless. I had to condense the range, and increase the distribution of tokens along the way. This also helped with coin counting, which was nice.
There was a similar issue with points, which used to range from 5,000 to 35,000 points. Guess what? Only the 35,000 mattered, stupid. I reduced it to 3 to 10, then 3 to 7, and now 3 to 6. I also added some flavor by giving the lower point values powerful bonuses. Take a 3 now and get a potent award for multiple rounds.
I fell into a common trap of a positive feedback loop, also known as the rich get richer. To punish losing players (which is often silly, as losing is sufficient punishment), I was also removing their Barbarians from the game. This kept the number of Barbarians at a reasonable population (are we hunting rabbits?). However, there are other ways to solve that problem. A friend suggested a token with a special power: the ability to eliminate a Barbarian. We fiddled with it some to prevent certain weird behaviors, and emerged with the Assassin. This went over really well, so I threw in two others: the Diplomat, which allows you to stall your turn, and the Apothecary, which allows you to beef up a Barbarian for the round. Basically, this lets you sneak in and obtain a 3 Barbarian cheaply, then turn him into a 6.
Finally, I really struggled making the First Consul valuable. The hope has been to make the First Consul, in some ways, the director of the game. But, they pay for that at the outset of the round, which means they have to spend precious coins for that privilege. Previously, the First Consul meant you went last...sometimes. Remember the inconsistent round behavior I mentioned above? Now, he always goes last, which is ideal in a bidding game. He had a few abilities I hoped were valuable, but they were effectively worthless. I had another issue, which is that there needed to be some certainty, sometimes, around the barbarians.
To solve both of these, I came up with a really simple solution: the First Consul draws and receives a single Barbarian which cannot be stolen for the round. That seems to have fixed it, and now, the bidding for First Consul is very contentious! However, it doesn't seem to be a broken advantage.
Barbarus is on solid footing, so aside from today's tuning changes, I want to start considering how I'm going to take it to the next level. I have some ideas!
For one, the game has been shortened from 6 to 5 rounds. I'm curious how it would feel if it were merely 3 rounds in duration? This would bring the game from about 45 to 25 minutes, which might make it a really tasty lunch experience.
I'm curious about introducing once per game bonuses at the player level. Perhaps every player is dealt a single card? This doesn't serve a purpose beyond it being something fun I generally enjoy in games. But, I'm trying to resist the need for text anywhere in the game, so we'll see.
I'd also really like to introduce a negotiation element, which is another reason to shorten the game. If the game is shortened, it won't be a problem when 5 minutes of negotiation is tossed into every round. There are already hooks for this. Players discussing where to conquer, where to commit forces, where to assassinate. But, can I mechanize this further? Provide coins that you can actively use to assist others? Can there be shared victories? These are tires to kick. Social game play is always strong game play, and blind bidding is a natural platform for deception and betrayal.
I'm eager to see where the game goes. I think I have a foundation, which means now I can challenge it and find the best game possible.