Protospieling Dawn Sector

Protospiel

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I attended my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. I spent 3 days hanging out with good friends, playing my game, Dawn Sector, and playing many of their outstanding prototypes. Originally, I planned on writing a post about their games, but I don’t think I can do it properly. Sure, I can share photos, but ultimately I don’t think it’s right to discuss someone else’s in-progress prototype in so public a forum as the internet. I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinions that could in any way hinder their game’s progress.

If I played your game at Protospiel, I’d love to have you write a guest post on this blog or if you’d like we could conduct a quick interview.

Instead, I’m going to write about Dawn Sector. I conducted 5 tests of the game: 3 with the generic faction and 2 with the real factions. Overall I think it was well-received and people seemed to enjoy it. However, I’m going to make two modest to big changes to the game that I think will really get me on the home stretch.

Draw Draw Draw: The first major change is the addition of a fifth turn Action — Draw a Card. For a long time the actions have been as follows:

  • Move
  • Build Fort
  • Declare Battle
  • Use a Spec Ops (essentially a really powerful action for which you spend cards)

Players could also pass, though this was never a good option (if you’re playing well) and if you passed on the first or second action round, you’d lose all remaining Actions. I really wanted to avoid players passing to force an opponent to blink. The Mexican stand off isn’t fun in most cases.

However, in a few instances, especially towards the end of the game, things often became quite tense and the game can come down to a single Action. Players would often be conflicted and some would simply pass to avoid making too gross an error. I didn’t like this, but I didn’t have a solution and it wasn’t so much of a problem that I was really worried.

In the very first test of the con I was given the suggestion to allow a Draw Card action. “Wow,” I thought immediately. That is a damn good idea. I added the action for every subsequent test and it was indeed a damn good idea. Drawing a card opens up the game in a variety of ways:

  • If you have a particularly bad hand or a hand that ALMOST gives you what you need, you can spend an Action to draw. 
  • It provides a moment of tension. Players NEED a card. When a really clutch draw occurred (i.e. they need a cavalry and drew one), it felt good.
  • It gives players a way to “pass” without passing. As a result, I’m removing the option to pass.

This can’t really be exploited as you still need to discard down to 5 cards before the end of a round. Basically, you can’t spend a round stockpiling only to have a crazy subsequent round. Plus, it is often still not the best idea to pass. Good players will learn when to hold or discard cards at the end of a round. The Draw Card will ultimately fill a nice hole but won’t be a crutch or a game breaker.

It’s a really great idea and attribution for it goes to Mr. Brett Myers of Nanuk fame. (Stay tuned for some of Brett’s upcoming games. One was presented to me and I was able to play another. Both were beautiful, tight, and well designed games.)

DS_Boards_Proto_Generic

Withdraw Withdraw Withdraw: Before I explain the second major change, I want to discuss an idea that was presented that I considered and ultimately rejected. Ryan Metzler of the Dice Tower played in the first test. He suggested I add a “Remove Troops from Board” action.

Initially this seemed compelling. For the many of you who haven’t played Dawn Sector, you should know a few things. Firstly, every player has a finite until pool of 15 Units. At the beginning of each round (6 total), you may spend cards to add these Units to the board. Units are only removed as a result of battle (i.e. casualties), at which point they can be re-added via reinforcement.

Ryan felt like he was in a bad predicament. His units were spread about and he wanted to be able to remove them to add back via the next reinforcement phase. This seemed fine enough, until I thought through it.

For one, the action would be highly inefficient and therefore only useful for this in the direst of circumstances. You’d have to pull units off in order to add them back next round? That’s not really useful. Secondly, this greatly rewarded bad play (sorry Ryan) and would give people a crutch for getting lost in the wilds. Furthermore, the game already provides ways by which you can sync units back up, including faction abilities (like Double Time in Ryan’s game) and the spaceports, which let you move to any territory bordering the edge of the map.

Finally, they’d break the game. Imagine a scenario: I carefully build up units and maneuver them to attack you. Perhaps this round, perhaps the next. You see this, realize you’ll lose the battle, and withdrawal your troops. Now, I just wasted an entire round of maneuvering and you got away with only one action! Why would people not do this every time?

I honestly felt like the game didn’t need this and furthermore it’s not worth adding many other rules or tweaking many other things to allow it. If you aren’t too reckless, your units shouldn’t get too far astray. And if that happens? You still have ways to recover.

The Single Decker: Now, for the final significant change as a result of Protospiel. Yes, I’m tweaking some tuning, but this is the second big one. Currently, every faction uses a unique deck. All decks are comprised of cards with the same 5 Symbols (Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, Specialist, Commander) with numbers ranging from 1-3. All of the decks have a very similar level of potential reinforcements. However, the distribution of the card types (i.e. cavalry versus infantry) differs. Originally this was for thematic and balance purposes. For example, the Brigade should have a lot of mech cavalry, whereas the Militia has the most specialists.

Alas, over time this has added a layer of fiddliness that isn’t necessary. For one, all decks have cards with the same five symbols, but not all factions use every symbol. Without a fail, one new player asks “why do I have this card?” It’s a good question for which I don’t have a good answer. Furthermore, more serious players have to relearn and re-examine the subtly (and sometimes significantly) different distributions when they change factions. Instead of just learning new abilities, they have to also learn the deck.

This is a bit of oversight on my part. Now, all factions will use an identical deck of cards. Faction abilities will still be triggered differently based on the approximate difficulty of the ability and, where possible, along thematic reasoning. But, players will now be able to move between the games with the same deck of cards.

I fully believe this can be done and the system can be tuned. However, I think there will be some subtle balance issues that will take time to suss out.

In conclusion: If you played Dawn Sector at Protospiel I really appreciate it. By observing you and discussing the game with you I learned much. I shall improve Dawn Sector and hopefully make her even more appealing for a publisher.

I’m almost finished tweaking the revised player board and I have a first pass take on the new deck distribution. Now, I must apply that distribution with new tuning for the faction abilities. Following that, I’ll reprint all the cards.

My next step after that is updating the rule book with these changes AND introducing my “director’s commentary.” If you want to know what I intended with a feature or why I implemented something as I did, this should be a fun read.

Finally, I’m building a prototype copy for Jay Treat. He’s offered to do some long-term balance testing for me. I look forward to having him as a testing partner.

Thoughts?

Feel the ‘Spiel

Protospiel is a yearly event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a gathering for game designers to play each others’ prototypes, gather feedback, socialize, and meet with publishers. It is an event I very much wish to attend. When I put out feelers asking for a guest writer to cover Protospiel, Darrell Hardy matched me with Chris Oltyan. Chris agreed and here we are! 

In many ways, this is a post about the differences between video game development (a career) and board game development (a passion). As a 7 year veteran of the game industry, much of Chris’ commentary makes sense to me. One of the primary reasons I design board games in the first place is to give me a “release valve,” i.e. a way for me to be creative entirely on my terms. I included a few notes in the post, so forgive me for that.

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

I am a 12 year veteran of the video game industry, but recently I decided I needed a change. I love video games, but the time was right for me to leave the industry (at least for now) to spend some time with my kids. This is not a quality of life article, but others in the industry can feel free to read the subtext in that statement. I served as producer and designer on approximately 25 shipped products. In my copious free time, I started a paper prototype for a mechanic for an MMO I wanted to make. After seeing my pretend budget for my pretend game, I decided to press forward and make it as a board game instead of waiting for someone to send me $35 million. By the way, if you are interested in handing me $35 million, please make the check payable to Chris Oltyan and comment below to coordinate the deposit into my account.

Over the past 4 years I’ve spent time here and there polishing my boardgame.  This is a zombie themed boardgame, but I started it way before it was cool to do it on Kickstarter. After leaving my job, which had a pretty restrictive employment agreement, I picked up the discarded pieces and began to actually assemble the game. I used Protospiel as a motivator to finish it.

Editor’s Note: Often times in creative industries, employees are forced to sign agreements that prohibit them from developing things outside of work, OR maintaining ownership of these things. For example, I must get permission for every game I hope to publish, including Poor Abby and Empire Reborn. Some companies are more restrictive than others. 

I was conducting about one playtest each week 1 month leading into Protospiel and have probably tested earlier versions 20-30 times. I tested primarily with video game developers (programmers, artists, and designers), as well as a few folks who have worked in the board game industry. I thought I had a pretty well balanced game and I was hoping to get feedback on whether or not my particular flavor of zombies was a worthwhile addition to the genre.

So what is Protospiel about?

Protospiel was an amazingly informative and helpful venue compared to the video game conferences I’ve attended. Conferences I’d been to previously would involve conversations between designers like:

“What are you working on? Can’t say? Well, neither can I. So, how’s the weather?”

Protospiel was a welcome and open setting where people showed work in a variety of stages and worried more about whether or not their mechanics were achieving their goals rather than who might steal their idea. In fairness to video game designers, this isn’t a choice they make as individuals, but often is a result of corporate policies, non-disclosure agreements, and a general paranoia that seems to permeate game studios. Sure, there may be some discussion around game theories, but show and tell is often not legally possible.

Protospiel had a great crew present of designers, publishers, and testers. Unlike feedback from video gamers (i.e. “Dude, you need to add [awesome feature in person’s head that costs 1 million dollars to implement that 3 people including person you’re talking to will actually care about] to this game!”) Protospiel was more like “Have you considered [elegant mechanic from game I either designed or played] to solve this problem here?” This is a bit of an gross generalization, but it just felt like everyone cared about games a ton and had useful, practical experience in making games that they were happy to share.

Editor’s Note: One of the problems of the video game industry is that costs have skyrocketed. This is one of the reasons so many developers have shifted to lower cost platforms, like the iPhone, web browsers, or Facebook. Many people outside of the development team don’t realize that a “simple” feature could cost months of development and millions of dollars.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a board game designer is often responsible for every aspect of his prototype. He knows all the problems with the design intimately, from the implementation of mechanics to UI and information display. Board game designers are generally not part of a team, they ARE the team, and that concentration of experience really helps to understand what does and doesn’t work in board games.

Was it Worth Going?

My ticket to protospiel was $45 and my hotel was $65 a night (compared to $1600 + $200 a night for GDC). I was able to playtest my game 2-3 times a day with different people and received good feedback on my game’s mechanics every time. All the designers and publishers I tested with were able to point me to examples of work they thought I could reference and helped me pinpoint issues with the game. I will be spending the next year getting ready to show the fruits of that labor, and that’s okay. People at Protospiel understand that boardgames are a labor of love for those who design it and are close enough to the ground where they get to indulge in the privilege of waiting for a game to be “right” before shipping it.

Editor’s Note: One of the primary sources of frustration for developers in the digital industry are having to ship a game before it’s ready in order to meet a deadline. Nothing is worse than spending 4 years on a game and shipping it in a bad state when it needed just 6 more months.

This was such a great opportunity I asked if I could run my own satellite ‘spiel. The organization is not even a company, just a bunch of passionate designers who felt that up and coming creators could really use the benefit of other experienced designers.  David Whitcher, the organizer of the event, said that it took several years before a consistent crew of people were bringing in games that were almost publish ready.  Let me just repeat that: Several Years.

To me, Protospiel helped me remember that making games can be about the game itself, and not the market budget, upcoming conference, or arbitrary ship date.  Protospiel demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if you have an idea for a game and are willing to put in the effort, you can make something amazing and fun. For that alone it’s well worth the price of admission.

Those are my thoughts on the conference.  I’ll also be pulling together my notes on the games that I played and talk about how the feedback process worked for a follow-up post.