Master of Olympus entered a new era last night when it was tested “blind” without my input for the first time. Overall it worked well, and it’s good to know the game is now self-sufficient. Central to all this was, of course, the manual, which I wrote over the summer during visits to the Library of Birmingham. Writing manuals is a challenge: squeezing something non-linear (a game) into something linear (a book) is never satisfactory. Nobody learns a game by mastering one mechanic in full before moving on to the next, but this is how manuals need to be structured.
Like many game designers, I’ve always planned to introduce “player aids” to make my manual easier to use. However, I couldn’t risk doing so at the same time as the manual itself: this would mean testing two unknowns at once. This presented me with a problem: for my first blind playtest, players would grapple with an untested manual without any tools to help them use it. Who would be mad enough to take on such a challenge?
Enter my fellow board game designers Nicki (of Immortality) and Ayden (of Solar Storm), whose experience and love of playtesting were exactly what I needed. After months of planning (never have I been so particular about a playtest) we met in the sanctuary of Meeple Mayhem on a cold winter’s night.
Based on my (untested) theory that players interact differently with a game when the designer’s watching, I erected a screen between myself and the game board. In this “blind” state I could focus on how Nicki and Ayden used the manual, and they would be unable to look to me for guidance. Twenty minutes later, they had set up correctly and were off.
I have to say Nicki and Ayden picked up the game very well: Nicki, for example, positioned an army to attack a city, then veered off to collect an artefact at the last minute. I had to bite my tongue when they neglected to refer to the manual’s contents page for the hundredth time, and again when their misreading of the Support rule led to 75% of their troops starving to death in the first winter. These difficulties were expected – more alarming were the misconceptions created by the word “stack”:
“How does combat work,” asked Ayden, “When I have more stacks on the hex than you?”
It was a fascinating question with a profound bearing on the game’s mechanics. The answer, however, was simple: “YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE MULTIPLE STACKS ON ONE HEX,” I roared silently from behind my screen, “It clearly says so on page 6. I knew I should have mentioned every single rule on every single page to prevent this happening!”
Despite these frustrations it was an enjoyable evening, and I’m very grateful to both players. They were full of suggestions for the player aid: colour coding it, for example, to link it to specific phases of the game. It’s a comfort to know that I’ll have a retort to any future blind playtesters who run into difficulties:
“The first guys had it harder.”