Pushing on with game design

Back in January, I entered the Cardboard Edison Award contest. I was hoping Astroventure would do well and be accepted as a finalist. I wasn’t sure it was capable of getting to the end, but I thought a finalist position was possible. It was a nerve-wracking February as I waited to hear But last Monday, I got the news that I wasn’t accepted as a finalist.

It was a little bit of a let down, but I also feel like I knew it wasn’t a strong contender. There are some really good elements to the game, and the skeleton has always been fun and well designed from the start. But the game still lacks a wow factor, and something to really let it stand out for what it is.

I got some good feedback on the game from the five judges that reviewed it. Some of it I knew already (the rule book could use some editing), some of it I hadn’t considered before (the events are worthless), and some of it was hard to hear (there are no compelling mechanics). While I would argue against that last one, the feedback put me in a weird state of not sure what to do. I’ve got UnPub in a couple of weeks where I’ll be demoing the game off there and getting feedback on it. But I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t want to take it and get more of the same feedback.

So I dug in and got back to work.

I like the events. They keep you from just doing predictable round after another. They cause you to plan slightly differently according to what’s going on with them. But they are clunky, and I do think they could be done better. Keeping track of what round it is has always been clunky in the game. It originally was a calendar track that you’d move a marker along to indicate what round it was. But a lot of the time, it was easy to forget whether the marker was moved or not. That’s why it switched to cards. So by using the event cards, it makes sure that each time you flip one over at the start of a round, you would get a new event and be reminded how many rounds were left.

The solution to both of these problems came through some feedback I got from the contest. No more is an event deck or a calendar track indicative of the end of the game, but now it’s based on when the contract deck is depleted. This means players can be more aggressive at ending the game. But removing the events was hard for me to do. I like them and think they do interesting things. So the new idea is to merge them into the contracts. By shuffling a few events into the contract deck, players will have to face these events at unpredictable times, forcing their hand on adapting strategy in the moment rather than in a calculated way. We’ve tried it a few times with various layouts and I settled on a good balance of four events per game (out of currently eight possible events) get shuffled in throughout the deck, leading you to come across them periodically throughout the game rather than every turn. And because players are no not held to specifically 20-30 rounds of event after event, they are interesting when they arrive.

The other aspect that Rachael pointed out was the improvement board was predictable and boring. She made note how she tries to go for one thing over the other to see how it works. This is a Euro game, and one of my favorites is Fields of Arle where you have a lot of options to just choose from and decide your approach. Which I tried to emulate with the player boards. You have 14 options, but only get to choose a maximum of 10 per game. But the approach became too straightforward, and the options really weren’t there. It was an illusion of choice, but the choices usually always ended up the same way.

The other aspect of the board was that players found it hard to remember all the things they got to do. Some of the improvements change how many resources you receive or spend at a given time, or change how you perform certain aspects of the game. Players found it hard to keep track of all this sometimes, leading to either slow turns or later confusion as to whether or not they got everything they were supposed to.

So we cut down the player boards. Instead of 14 options, there are six. Three of these are for in-game and change how your actions function, three of them give you a reputation boost at the end of the game. You can research all six of them if you want, but you don’t have to. This allows for players to craft their experiences based on which company they start with, and allows for a slight diversification of options, without being overwhelming and easy to forget. Now when you do certain actions you only have to keep track of at most three options during the game. Rounds are moving much quicker as well because of this. In addition, the smaller board size means the game takes up just that much less table space which has been another concern for me since the start.

All of these minor changes have made the game that much better. I still feel like it lacks that wow factor, but the game itself is getting better. The core elements are really starting to get polished, and each tweak to the formula seems to make it better than it was before. I now feel ready to go into UnPub next week with ideas that are stronger than they were before, and that I’ll get feedback that isn’t just more of the same. Maybe someone will have that idea for the big wow factor and the game will move that much closer to completion.