Diary #52 – Someone Else’s Problem

Today I’m going to answer a question you may have been asking for nine months: what on earth has happened to Test of Time? Sadly, none of the publishers I met at UKGE followed up (click here). On my return home I searched through back issues of magazines (click here) for more likely targets to send sell sheets to. This resulted in contrasting conversations with two publishing companies, which I’ll call Alpha and Beta.

Alpha, which is based in Germany, asked to meet and play the virtual prototype for an hour. I was delighted: a whole hour! I did, however, have reservations: Alpha’s back catalogue consists of eurogames which are significantly less violent than Test of Time. Whatever the outcome I knew the meeting would be a useful insight into the publishing world. I realised how narrow my horizons still were when, in advance of the meeting, I had to look up the definition of CEST (did you?).

Upon booting up Zoom I was greeted by the smiling faces of two young-ish white men, so, as a white male, I immediately felt I was in a Safe Space (a phrase, incidentally, I consider underused these days). I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that Test of Time was ready to speak for itself. We set off on a three player game and quickly met all of the mechanics. The verdict: too violent. The game’s combat system involves equal parts creation and destruction: action to recruit a piece and action to destroy it later on. This type of interaction is very hard to fit into a eurogame, since they emphasise constant progression and “engine building” (I’ve had the same problem another game, Olympus). I’ve tried to compensate for this by constantly feeding new, interesting cards into players’ hands. In fact, Test of Time is best viewed as a hand-management game with a bit of area control on the side. It is, in other words, a bizarre, unpublishable misfit.

There was more: Alpha felt that the marriage of one card to one action reduced some turns to nothing more than admin. Could I make every decision in the game interesting? In short, no: the Action Loop concept (click here) explicitly forbids it. An “interesting” decision is often a “complicated” one, and I’ve made some sacrifices to keep Test of Time accessible. The idea is that each sequence of five or so actions is interesting, and that the speed of play makes turns feel simultaneous. I would like to see a game which can do all of human history in 70 minutes without meeting these sorts of problems. That simultaneous, high-speed feeling is, by the way, completely lost in the virtual prototype.

Alpha’s third piece of feedback was one I had, surprisingly, not heard during my playtests. Perhaps their perspective as an established publisher was what I needed. I knew the general principle: if the first few turns of a game always work out the same way, they should be done for the players as part of set-up. Get to the interesting bit as fast as possible. I had considered this unfeasible in Test of Time; I was wrong. I made a thematic sacrifice and came up with a drafting mechanic for the opening territories and technologies. I was itching to try it out in the real world, but I couldn’t do so because the physical prototype was no longer in my possession.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? While all this was going on, Beta, which is based in the UK, invited me to send them a physical prototype to try out. This was also very exciting: Test of Time’s first solo adventure! Beta were busy delivering a new product to their customers but their aim was to test the game in September or October. November came, then December, and the message was still the same: “we’ll try next month”. This was perfectly understandable and I wasn’t particularly bothered (just frustrated that I was only being kept in the loop by my own nagging). In fact, this extended period away from the game did me – and, as you’ve seen, my other projects – a lot of good. Nevertheless, by February I felt it was time for a phone call:

*RING RING*

“Hello?”

“Hello, my name’s Richard Buxton, have I reached…..”

*CLICK*

*RING*

“Hi it’s Richard Buxton again, I don’t know if we got cut off or what, but please I’m not spam, we’ve been emailing…”

Explaining that I was not a spam caller hurt my pride a little, but worse was to come:

“Oh yes, Test of Time. That’s the homemade prototype, isn’t it?”

Indeed it was: I had designed, printed and glued it together all by myself. It was not much to look at, but clear and fully functional (which is more than can be said for some published games). In my experience it’s easier to see through a game’s veneer to its mechanical heart if there is, well, no veneer. I had absolutely no problem with Beta describing my game as “homemade”, but I did have a problem with the word “the”.

Beta gets sent a lot of prototypes from a lot of designers. Test of Time was one of a number of boxes on its submissions shelf. The implication of Beta’s throwaway remark is that every single one was a professionally produced, illustrated beauty. Test of Time stood out like a child who’s forgotten their uniform on the first day of school. Had I let it down, failed in my duty as its creator? No: as I’ve said, a publisher does not need to see veneer. They expect everything – artwork, theme, even mechanics – to be negotiable, changeable. Those expensively-produced boxes might never see publication in their current forms. Creating them strikes me as a huge waste of time and resources (unless the designers in question wanted to keep the option of self-publishing open). Let me make something clear, something I’ve said before and will say again:

It’s not my job, as a game designer, to make my board game look like a board game.

Such questions are part of product design. Clearly we need some definitions: a “game” is a series of interactions which lead to interactions between people*, whereas a “product” is a cardboard box with pieces of cardboard inside. Games cannot be sold, products can. I’m happy to think like a product designer when necessary – making a sell sheet, for example – but doing so is entirely optional. I wanted Test of Time’s transition to a product to be someone else’s problem because it simply doesn’t interest me (this is not the case for all of my projects). I did just enough work to get the game to a publisher’s table. Or so I thought.

“Hi Richard … we just have too much going on right now. If you’d like me to return the prototype I’d be happy to do so, or we can leave it until things calm down a bit. Up to you.”

This was in April. How did I respond? I relaxed, let out the breath I’d been holding for months. The ball was back in my court and I realised I could solve all of my problems by making another copy of the physical prototype. Doing so would be a lot of effort but would also enable me to reconnect with the project in a hands-on way. Beta could keep the thing for as long as they liked: I had a non-guided playtest with Fox and Stuart to prepare for. That playtest was a lot of fun, and it confirmed, among many other things, that the new set-up rules work. I’m grateful to both playtesters for their time, insight and, most of all, friendship.

I’ve been designing games for over a decade and the best adventures in that time have all involved people: friends, designers, gamers, that noisy teenager on the office chair. Even publishers like Alpha and Beta. I owe them all thanks, and I owe you, too, for reading this far. If I were you I’d stop now, because I cannot end this diary entry on a positive note.

From reading between the lines, I think Beta is struggling. These days it’s hard for small publishers to compete with large ones on Kickstarter (nice one, Capitalism!) and in the UK they’ve had Brexit to deal with. On top of that there’s been a pandemic, a shipping crisis, a genocide in a key manufacturing country, war in continental Europe and a climate in such peril that any use of energy or plastic is questionable. Where is the “golden age”? Well, it’s not my problem. Do you see why I suggested you stop reading? If we’re being honest, this whole diary entry is just some guy moaning about his hobby, measuring himself by other people’s standards. I moan despite being in a much better place than I was, say, two years ago. Who needs a “silver lining” when the sky above is blue?

I’ll stop before I meander any further. I promise the next diary entry won’t be so long. If you read it, maybe one day I’ll make you a product. Or, maybe I won’t.

*I have yet to fit the concept of solo gaming into my definition of “game”. Solo gamers, in my limited experience, seem to enjoy discussing their exploits with others, so perhaps this is where those interactions can be found.

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