Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unwritten Rules on the USS Catastrophe

I used to work for a gamestore. Prior to that I worked at that gamestore. And before that I worked at the same gamestore, under different ownership. Before that, I worked at the Game Distributor (that had begun as the original store to which that store was a sister location, and eventually the sole inheritor thereof). For several years, I would attend the GAMA Trade Show (aka GTS aka Game Manufacturer Association Tradeshow) in Vegas every spring, scoping out the new hot games and getting the inside scoop on where the industry was headed.

At one of those GTS's in years past, I played this boardgame called Vapour's Gambit. It was a cyberpunk-ish racing game. Hoverboard racing, on a modular course, with ramps and pits and other hazards that would spring up through-out the game. It was fast, and fun, with simple concise rules and just enough luck to keep the finishing order in doubt till the last turn. But they'd signed an exclusive deal with another distributor, our competitor at the time.

A few years went by, and eventually the exclusive deal fell by the wayside. The game became available via other channels, and the game store I was managing at this point happily picked it up based on my recommendation. And it stunk. The game utterly lacked timing rules. There had been timing rules when I'd played at GTS years before. Somehow, they'd vanished, or, more likely, had never been written down in the first place. At those two intro plays of the game years before, there was clearly communicated understanding of when certain tiles could be played, and the game had a nice rhythm and balance because of that. Without said rules, the game lost much of it's strategic depth. Further, the game tended to devolve into arguments about who shouted "wait" first, and what space you were on when they did so. As a result, I've only ended up playing my copy a handful of times, despite my fond memories and anticipation. It's as though the game came with a rough draft of the rules, and that the demo had used something very different, an accumulated set of elegant house-rules that made the game much more enjoyable.
Side note: Not only did it feel like only 1/2 the rules came in my box, but only 1/2 the components as well. This was the same game (I remembered the artwork) but the board sections had no narrows, no intersections, just 4 corners and two straights making a grand total of 2 possible board layouts, without any of the cool stuff. Turns out the other boards (which we'd played with at GTS long ago) were from some little expansion they'd done, which was now out of print. What a pale shadow of the game I'd remembered.
On a similar note, I remember one of my coworkers at Distro telling me to never pass up an opportunity to play the L5R RPG with the crew from Alderac. He'd done so at two different cons, with different GMs (both were members of the design team, IIRC), and was struck at what a completely different game it played with them then how it read. Both used a similar set of house-rules on even basic fundamental principles of the game - house rules that digressed from the printed word significantly.

It's very easy to fall into this trap.

You're designing a game. You write up one set of rules, and then playtest it heavily. In playtesting, you start implementing house-rules to fix little things that weren't perfect in your initial ruleset. But unless you take very good notes, you'll end up missing one or more of these little tweaks when you get around to implementing the changes. The more complicated the game, the more likely that is to happen.

I wrote a really cool little game "The USS Catastrophe" a few years back. We playtested it a lot, and found the initial rules sucked, but quickly found things that fixed it. After a while, I had a fun little game that everybody really enjoyed. I never got around to rewriting the rulesheet to match the changes we'd implemented, since everybody just new how it worked. If I were to decide to seek out a publisher now, I'd have to play the heck out of it all over again first, and reinvent the wheel to restore all those little changes we'd made. I didn't have a business plan then, and I didn't take it too seriously. Honestly, I wasn't in the right head space to try getting something published back then - I was under the yoke of manipulative bosses I no longer have to bow to. So I daydream about spontaneously remembering what we'd done to make it work, polishing it up with some snappy graphics, and showing this thing off a bit.

I can't possibly speak highly enough of the value of blind playtests.

It's very easy to neglect something vital to the game when writing your rules, something you'd never forget when presenting the game in person. This often comes from the more casual way we describe things face-to-face than via the written word. If I say "it plays kinda like chess" (just an example) then that conveys all sorts of info: you expect it to be 2-player, on a checkered board, alternating turns, you move one piece per turn, the goal is abstractly derived from military conquest so capturing or destroying enemy pieces is important, position is everything, there's multiple types of pieces with differing movement and capture capabilities, etc. Rather than defining all that, I'll be defining what's different about this game. In face-to-face playtests, you can sum things up abstractly via comparison or verbal shorthand, and gather from reaction whether the other players understand the concept. But it's really damn easy to miss that in a rulebook. You're not going to say "this plays like Settlers" (unless perhaps your publisher is also the publisher of Settlers of Catan) in your rulebook, yet it's actually pretty easy to accidentally assume your audience is already familiar with the concepts behind your game and thus leave out something important.

Please forgive all the rambling above. The gist of what I'm saying is this: I look back at my old rules for The USS Catastrophe, and I see that they are but a thin shadow of what we'd played with. Like my experiences with Vapour's Gambit, or my co-workers tale about the L5R RPG, the designer (me) never thought to chronicle key details which were self-evident in face-to-face play, but which would hamstring those who tried to play without knowing those facts. We all knew how it worked back then, but clearly I don't even know how it's supposed to work now. So I now see how easy it is to flub up something like this.

If I'd used blind playtesting, I'd have had to write everything down in the clearest possible language and context, and I'd have a functional game to shop around today.

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