Finding the right pacing

April 02, 2019

So I took What We Found There to a couple conventions recently - namely LeiriaCon and RobbCon - and was able to play the game a few times with knowledgeable people and get some good feedback. From this, I think it has been progressing nicely.

The main things I was struggling with were twofold. One was that, in an overarching sense, the basic loop of the game felt a little basic. Collect resources and turn them in for points. In terms of a Euro game, it's about as basic as you can get, especially for a worker placement game.

I don't know, I suppose it's okay to have some basic ideas in a game as long as they are integrated well into what you are trying to do. There's a part of me somewhere in the back of my mind that screams when I see something basic, but going too complex can also be an equally egregious issue. Anyway, it's something I'm still struggling with in the game, but I'm hoping to settle in on some happy medium.

The other big issue, though, is the pacing of the game. And I'm not even necessarily talking about its length. It's usually clocking in at around 2 hours with a group of first-time players, not counting rules explanations, and I'm pretty okay with that.

It's just that there are three phases to the game, and I'd like players to spend a roughly equal time in each. And then when the end of the game is triggered, I need that last bit of the game to feel good for everyone, like their last actions are still powerful and meaningful.

What I was doing originally was using a deck of what I called "hurdles." These cards were broken up into three tiers, each tier requiring the payment of a roughly equal amount of resources for an equal return in points. The lowest tier offered 8 points, the next highest tier needed twice as many resources and offered 12 points, and the highest tier needed three times as many resources and offered 16 points. This scaling was to reward players who completed the early, lower tiered hurdles instead of doing as much engine-building as their opponents.

Anyway, this deck was composed of one of each tier per player, stacked with the easiest on top and the hardest on bottom. A number of them were placed face-up, again equal to the number of players, and when any of them were completed (by a player taking a specific action and paying the required resources), a replacement card would be drawn.

Initially, the transition from the first phase to the second phase happened at the end of the round in which a number of hurdles equal to the number of players were completed. Then, again, moving to the third round happened when the same number was completed again, and then the game ended when all were completed.

What I found, though, was that this even distribution was leaving players too long in the first phase, because they were busy building their engine instead of grabbing points. In a roughly six round game, four rounds would be spent in stage 1, and then only one round in each of the others. The simple solution was to reduce the number of completed hurdles needed to move into the second stage by one, and increase number needed in the last stage. This didn't really solve my other problem, though.

With the way the display of hurdles worked, once the last one was gone, there wasn't much to do for the rest of the final round. Players would just do what they could to collect resources because there was an end-of-game conversion, but it was very anti-climactic. The other thing was that if multiple people were going for that last hurdle card, one of them would get it first and score 16 points, and the other was just out of luck, which isn't a very good feeling.

So I made two changes. One was to get rid of the deck of cards that trickled out over time and instead place all hurdle cards out at the start of the game in a big pyramid, now with four tiers of difficulty. There were five easy ones, then four harder ones above them, then three harder ones, then two of the hardest ones at the top. The point scaling was reversed so that, for instance, the second tier was worth twice as many points as the first tier for 50% more resources, instead of the other way around, but players had to start at the bottom of the pyramid and could only complete a hurdle if they had completed one of the two hurdles beneath it.

Also, these hurdles didn't go away when completed, and other players could complete the same hurdles that others have already completed, for a reduction in points. This gave the feeling more of moving up through a tech tree, which I liked. Of course, it was still just that basic loop of turning in resources for points, but we gotta take one step at a time here.

The bigger change, though, was that the progression of the game wasn't based on the number of hurdles completed, but rather the number of overall points earned. So whenever a player earned points by completing a hurdle or meeting one of the randomized objectives, they took it from a controlled supply. And when enough is taken, depending on the number of players, that triggers the stage transition or end of the game at the end of that round. But there are more point tokens after the last one that triggers the end of the game is taken, so players can still work towards and complete big goals up to the very end of the game.

From a practical standpoint, there was still an issue with the number of point tokens needed. I mean, if a tier one hurdle was still worth 8 points, that would make a tier four hurdle 32 points. There would need to be a ridiculous amount of points counted out and kept track of to determine the stage transitions, so instead I divided everything by eight. Hurdles were worth one to four points, and objectives were worth two. And everything was worth one less if someone got it before you. There were still minor points received from various collaborations and equipment, and players just turn these in for normal points at a ratio of 8:1 whenever they want on their turn, which actually allows them to have some control over the pacing of the game. It seems to work pretty well.

There are still problems, but the game seems to be moving in the right direction. Another big change I made was moving away from tetronimo pieces for the equipment action spaces, because it just wasn't worth the trouble, but that is probably another discussion for another time. I think I've rambled on long enough!

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