I wanted to do a review of Epic Win today (the task list app that Monty suggested to manage my time using quests, loot and XP) but I haven’t found time to download and try it yet.  So maybe tomorrow!  This evening, however, I gathered some folks to help me playtest version 1 of a game I am making for Kelly and Laura as a wedding present, after the fact.  (Shh, don’t tell them!)  There are some interesting properties of early game design I wanted to explore here with the playtest fresh in my mind.  (Also, huge thanks to Dylan, Nik and Rebecca for their help!)

The first is that you need to know which mechanics to be attached to, and which ones to let go.  When an aspect of a game isn’t pulling its weight – either because it isn’t fun, or it isn’t working quite right – then it’s time to take a hard look and ask “how fundamental is this aspect to my vision for this game?”  Two different mechanics in my prototype came up as concerns early on, and upon reflection, I am sure that mechanic A is “core” to the game and mechanic B is not.  Which is totally sweet to know this early, because it means I can devote my attention to finding a new, better mechanic (B’) and not waste any more time (other than post-mortem) on original B.  This is the part of playtesting where I think it helps the most to be aware of your playtesters’ revealed preferences because sensing when fun is missing is so huge in understanding when to focus on fixing a mechanic.

The second is that too much variance can be just as bad as too little.  Assuming your game has any strategic component at all (and the ones I play and/or design always do), then you need to be sure the variance doesn’t drown out the ability for a player to predict and act accordingly.  For example, and this is purely hypothetical, if the game has both cards and dice at the same time, that could be too much swing.  Mitigating one or the other will swing it further to the side of strategy, but not so much that you have a Puerto Rico or a Caylus where the more skilled/informed player always wins.  The variance knob is usually easy to turn, but hard to determine the effect of until you have played a number of times, so I generally vary it only slightly across playtests.

Of course, if I had my way, we’d be more scientific about it and only change one thing at a time (to understand exactly what effect each change has) but game design is (1) more of an art than that, due to all of the interconnectivity and emergent properties of multiple mechanics, and (2) usually more time limited than that.

But yeah, going well, and we ended up finding some new stuff as a group that’s definitely pushed it into Design Phase 2.  Woohoo!