It’s interesting how pressure can be motivating: virtual games lead us to download new software, conventions to refine prototypes and competitions to celebrate and share our work. I’ve just flirted with the third of these and the result has been some useful insights into the industry.
Of the 124 entries into the Board Game Design Challenge 2020, 30 made it to the second round; Test of Time is not one of them (you can search the videos on YouTube if you’re not a member). I can’t say I’m surprised: I found out about the competition when the game was unfinished and unpolished (most of its hexes look like they’ve been chewed on by mice). Nevertheless entering motivated me to create the video and sell sheet necessary for promoting the game in future. This was no easy task and I’m indebted, as always, to the Birmingham Board Game Designers for their help and encouragement. Though the judges did not rate Test of Time highly, they have given me some useful feedback and I’m going to respond to some of it here (with just a hint of indignation).
“While not everyone is talented in front of a camera, it would help if you were more enthusiastic.” Me? Camera-shy? Something’s gone horribly wrong if that’s how I come across. Yet I clearly take too little pride in how the game looks and what makes it marketable. I would love to appear in my next videos, but switching between shots of me and the game in a professional manner will require more than a digital camera and Microsoft PowerPoint.
“We were asked to judge this from a publisher’s perspective.” I was afraid of this. Surely there’s a place where entries are judged for innovative design over appearance, where substance matters over style? (This question is not rhetorical, please help me out if you can). There is already a competition for games spruced up like the front page of a Kickstarter campaign: it’s called Kickstarter! Was the competition just free advertising for self-publishers? (Rhetorical, I’m not criticising here).
“If I lose all of my military might when I scoop my cards, won’t I end up just being massively taken over as soon as I scoop?” This one made me laugh. I knew from playtesting that it would come up so I specifically addressed it in the video. The answer is “Hell yes, and you’re going to love it”. A small minority of my playtesters disagree, and it’s true I didn’t set out to punish players for trying to defend what’s “their’s”. Discovering this quirk of the core mechanic was one of the true joys of the project, one which illustrates the adventurous nature of game design.
But what if I accept that the peaks and troughs in combat strength are a problem, and try to fix them? The options, as I see them, are either to make a small change to the core mechanic or introduce a second mechanic which neutralises it. The former is appealing, but would mean starting a brand new project from scratch. To the latter, however, I have big practical and philosophical objections. What sort of designer comes up with an innovative mechanic then works to repress it? It would be like trying to improve a machine by inserting a cog which turned in the wrong direction – the best engineers in the world could not do that. A designer’s job is to remove complexity from a problem until they’ve reached the simplest, most accessible solution. Test of Time is the simplest civilisation-style game I know of: it may be ugly to some, but I love it all the same.
So it’s come to this: two years of designing a lightweight, publisher-friendly eurogame and I’ve blown it with an innovative, unique mechanic as repulsive to publishers as garlic is to vampires. Damn. It’s tempting to dig in my heels, raise a middle finger to the establishment and turn to Kickstarter. This is not what I want, and Test of Time has too much going for it to give up now. Maybe actual conversations with publishers will suit me better. For now I should relax, continue enjoying my hobby and listen to the Voices.
I can’t end without congratulating the designers who made it to the second round: a phenomenal amount of work went into their entries, and the games I’ve looked at seem brilliant. I’d also like to thank my three judges for their observations, feedback and advice for moving the project forward. I’m going to share some more of their feedback below, if you’re reading this and have anything to add I’d love to hear from you.
“Interesting idea to tie combat strength to # of cards played – that seems like it would lead to some interesting decisions!!”
“Sell sheet and video…neither do a great job in quickly letting me know why this game is cool and fun”
“The ability to play in 75 minutes seems like a huge benefit for a civ game.”
“It has so few cards I’m worried it might play the same often”
“The video had no vocal variability so my attention wandered”
“I wonder if you could pivot this game to play as a light civ builder, like ‘tiny epic’ style”
“I would love to see it shown with the excitement and passion that I know is behind it”