Diary #48 – Host with the Most

Here’s a picture of me in my new job: Front of House at a posh restaurant. The challenge is to make people feel welcome and ease them towards an enjoyable experience (I find the trick is to talk about the weather). I’ve come to realise that “hosting” has its place in tabletop gaming too.

When a group of old friends sit down to play a familiar game, the intended experience seems to flow straight out of the box. In most other situations, however, a single person takes charge and ensures everyone remains invested in the game. This person could be an expert on that particular game, the event organiser or just someone who’s feeling confident. Either way the game will only become a “level playing field” or “safe space” if it is hosted well; a game is essentially a collaboration between designer, player and host. (Incidentally I consider the phrase “safe space” to be under-used and over-maligned, perhaps because a vocal minority of people feel threatened by it).

As a designer I’m usually the host of a guided playtest of one of my games (there have been some interesting exceptions). Reflecting on my playtests of Master of Olympus I realise consistently made the following mistake:

“We couldn’t have played this without you.”

“Yes, rules are easier to pick up when the designer is on hand.”

The problem wasn’t with over-explaining but with over-hosting: talking up, supporting and encouraging the playtesters over the course of the game. I even went so far as to give them a countdown when they were starting a simultaneous phase. I was so emotionally involved in the project that I couldn’t let anyone have a “bad” time playing it; I would make excuses for my actions, like arguing the rules needed to be used “properly”.

There are other ways in which the presence of a designer can skew a playtest: players gang up on us; follow our moves too closely; neglect to memorise rules (they’re being guided, after all); get self-conscious about making mistakes or asking questions; follow designer advice even if it’s based on an old iteration of the game. The solution is non-guided, or “blind”, playtesting: show the playtesters the manual in advance then let them loose. It’s difficult to get into this position because game and manual are often incomplete and poorly structured. Welcome to the challenge of tabletop game design.

Long ago, designer and author David Wake (click here) suggested a feedback routine, tried and tested with a writing group, for our playtesting sessions. Each playtester gives one thing about the game they liked and one they disliked; the designer is not allowed to say anything initially. I’ve found this useful for hearing gut reactions and, crucially, ensuring every playtester knows their feedback is valued. Encouraging honest feedback is one of the host’s responsibilities.

Speaking of hosting, I’m organising a playtesting zone at Beachhead 2022 on the 12th and 13th of February 2022 – click here for details. This will be a good opportunity to test and promote prototypes so please get in touch if you would like to book a slot; feedback and suggestions are very welcome. I’ve also been joining the Dorset Tabletop Creators once a month, and found myself giving advice I really should act on myself. Clearly playtesting other people’s games is as important as hosting your own.

I confess that I work very differently when a project is in its early stages – perhaps you can work out why from the following:

Island Project – First Playtests

The game has been playtested three times and I’d like to thank Harry, Abi, Fox and Jim for their patience, enthusiasm and critical feedback. I did not provide them with a player aid (since I did not have confidence in the rules) and, at one point, had to explain the game while negotiating a big bowl of macaroni cheese, so playtesting has not been easy. Between us we’ve identified paths leading to thousands of potential games from this one, overblown prototype.

With Jim I found out something very important: the game takes ages to set up and explain. In my head it was all so simple. Not really a problem at this point in the project but we didn’t have much to comment on when we wrapped it up after about an hour and a half. I decided to record the board state as it stood and pick it up in my second playtest with Fox.

Now things got interesting. We built up farms as I had expected, then I pushed an infantry unit towards Fox and he sent a cavalry unit around the back to flank. He invested a lot of time and energy into this, only for the cavalry piece to die immediately due to a bad die roll. He later pointed some archers at my infantry, expecting to be able to shoot them. I had to interrupt his flow to explain that we weren’t yet in the Engagement Phase: the archers were going to have to let the infantry activate and shoot them later (this is borrowed from the source material, X Wing, The Miniatures Game). We called time on the playtest there.

I have a huge list of Fox’s suggestions in front of me (this is only a sample):

  • Removing the player boards and the upgrade mechanic because they are not on the main board and “if I can’t see it, it’s not there” – a useful maxim for a designer to consider.
  • Simplifying the ways units move and can be upgraded.
  • Include a “routing” mechanic, perhaps with the general pieces “scaring” enemy troops.
  • Linking unit activation to specific game features: “all cavalry move”, “all cities produce”, “all orange regions activate” and so on.

I found that last point particularly interesting. The decision to colour the regions was purely practical and on another prototype – in an online setting, for example – I might not have bothered to do so. But with it there in front of us it got us thinking. Perhaps choose a region and activate everything there… perhaps cards allow a certain number of troops to be activated in one action…. these thought processes led me to come up with some definitions. Combat-oriented games need some way of defining what pieces can activate and get involved in fighting. I now refer to X Wing as “unit based”: the amount of stuff a player has to do is directly related to how many pieces they’ve got on the board (each one has a speed and direction of flight assigned to it). Master of Olympus and Test of Time are both “action based”: the chosen action card dictates what activates, and how. This playtest made me consider the possibility of “region based”. I’m sure there’s more.

Anyway, Fox and I had so many ideas for game mechanics we decided to try one out there and then. What if the actual position of a piece within a square affected it’s attack and defence stats? Here it is:

I was itching to change things, but the game had still not been played with its intended player count of three. It was clear that the mechanic for troop health was a sticking point, though, so I replaced the three-hitpoint system with a simpler “active” and “routing” system, at Fox’s suggestion. I was not very clear on it at the start of the latest playtest, and it did mean we had to do combat rolls for attack and defence in each mêlée (are all those accents necessary?).

The events of this playtest are worth describing in more detail (it was a lot more fun with three): Harry chose nimble Carthage, Abi chunky Syracuse and I flexible Rome. After a bit of confusion over which early placements should constitute “set up” Harry had largely secured control of a city, I was spread thinly and Abi was somewhere in the middle. My income suffered as a result but I had more options as we progressed through the early game (we didn’t reach mid- or late- game, as I understand them).

In the image below you can see what happened next: in the background, Harry’s cavalry slog it out with my infantry allowing Abi’s general to mobilise a lot of hoplites and archers (yes, Abi’s general is a frog. It was nice to finally get those funny meeple on the table; you’ve already met the turtle). Abi later repelled my incursion into her lands (which was made possible by the Tribune, a unique Roman piece) but was defeated by Harry on her Western front. By then we’d hit a snag: my infantry had “routed” two of Harry’s cavalry pieces, which were now blocking access to my lands for the rest of his troops. It was the same problem as Fox had got into with his cavalry, just extended and improved slightly – a classic example of continuing down the wrong track in the “woods”, click here. He got it tidied up in the end and was poised to carry out some chevauchée, just as I crept into the middle for some mischief of my own. We called it a night having scored precisely zero victory points between us.

Throughout the game we saw many of the interactions I was hoping for. Harry’s cavalry used the Skirmish Formation card to launch missiles at my infantry, which I resisted using my Tortoiseshell. Abi used her gold and tech tree to upgrade her archers; I countered this by claiming a city and therefore making the most of the Fortifications ability. The resulting conflict is visible in the photo below (X Wing players: yes, those laminated eyes are comparable to Focus tokens).

The good:

  • Opportunities for tactical positioning
  • Going for cities and spreading thin both seem viable
  • Diagonal movement upgrade on Carthage’s cavalry seems exciting

The bad:

  • Ranged combat
  • Lots of work undone on unlucky dice
  • The three main mechanics move at very different speeds
  • No engine building or meaningful scoring
  • Activating troops is way too complicated – I borrowed the mechanic from Scott Moore’s This War Without an Enemy (click here) and it doesn’t fit.

The brimming with potential:

  • Could turn into a dice game with movement and combat reducing dice values
  • Farming shape mechanic is interesting

This will be on the shelf for a bit while I get on with that good-for-a-Kickstarter card game idea. Thanks for reading!

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