I think any game designer will tell you that the most useful thing you can do when you first start designing a game is to get it to the table and start playing it. You can stare at spreadsheets and brainstorm documents forever, but until you actually experience the game in action, it will be incredibly hard to figure out what works and doesn't work about it.
So, with that in mind, I took my initial concepts for What We Found There and set about making a basic prototype, and the most intensive part of this was making all the cards.
Previously, we discussed the game's employment of multi-use cards, and I figured 40 was a good enough number for how many of them I needed, which meant coming up with 40 permanent bonuses, 40 equipment action spaces, 40 worker special powers, and 40 single-use resource bonuses.
I also created 24 grant cards, which is the main way players get money (they can take a grant to get money up-front, but will then have to expend different amounts of research to fulfill the grant within 2 rounds), and 24 hurdle cards, which are how the game progresses forward (basically, players have to turn in packets of research to slowly close the gate between the two universes). These cards were pretty easy, though, as they were just different combinations of the research resources.
After that, I just had to make a main board, some basic player boards, and then find enough bits to represent all the workers and resources. All in all, it took a couple days.
The most important thing to realize about prototypes like this is that they are going to fail. At this point, I have a pretty good nose for balance, but the numbers on some things are usually still going to be so wrong, it will break the game pretty fast. Plus, various mechanics will inevitably bog the game down. Things you thought would be fun turn out to be the exact opposite. The whole thing becomes a mess, and that's totally okay.
My biggest problem with the first couple attempted plays was that I really wanted a "feed your workers" aspect to it. Basically, you can hire lots of post docs and grad students, but at the end of each round, you need to pay them all their salary. This constant need to always have more money, though, in the face of everything else that was going on, really ground the game to a halt. Some players were able to get a decent enough engine going to make slow progress toward their goals, but others were just treading water, able to do nothing more than fulfill the grants they needed to pay their workers.
Obviously a lack of balance was part of the problem, but even after I reduced the cost, it was still a drain on resources, needlessly lengthening the game and undermining the central engine-building concept. I changed hiring workers to a flat, up-front cost and I think it ended up working a lot better.
Other costs were also problematic, certain powers were too strong or not strong enough, but overall, I was kind of surprised by how well it worked. As in, by the fourth or fifth play, I was actually able to more-or-less make it through the whole game without tearing my hair out.
I still had some significant problems, though. One was the whole action space building system. Players could build equipment in their own labs so that only they could use it, or they could build it in a communal area, where everyone could use it, and if someone else used it, they would receive a point. Some building effects were pretty strong, though, and just getting a point for having another player take its use seemed a little weak, incentivizing players to keep the really powerful buildings to themselves, slowing the progress of the game. On my last revision, I decided to go Lords of Waterdeep instead of Caylus, giving owning players bonuses specific to the building being used instead of a generic point.
My other problem was that the third phase of the game, where players have to use their worker pairs in unison, just didn't work super well. This required there to be something useful on the same space on both sides of the mirror, and not enough buildings were built to ensure this was the case. It just felt, I don't know, like you were suddenly playing a different game that wasn't as fun.
Up until this point, I was just play testing with myself, as it wasn't functional enough to subject it to other people. But then I decided, despite not having an answer for how the third phase breaks down, that I would make the changes I could, print off a new prototype, include some player aids (always include player aids when play testing with other people!) and take it to a small convention I attended last weekend. There, I broke it out with some friends and we trudged through it, stopping somewhere around the middle of the third phase.
They had some great feedback and suggestions on how to fix the building issues and make the game play feel more streamlined. We talked about increasing the size of the starting crappy resource equipment to cover the whole communal lab area, but they allowing players to build over them with other equipment, so there were no empty spots in the main lab when placing your workers in the third phase. Also I should relax some of the restrictions of placement in the third phase, forcing worker pairs to be placed just in the same row instead of the exact same space.
Basically, I've been pretty happy with my play testing so far. I think the game is progressing pretty nicely, and while there is still a lot of work to be done to make it something significant, I am still excited about working on it and making it better, which is really all you can hope for. Who knows where my design adventure will take me next, but I'll let you know when I get there!
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