Designer Diary – Beta Playtesting: Dean & Chris

First, some background info: Andrew and I meet up once a week to play games with our friends Dean and Chris.  The game we almost always play is TI3.  We love the complexity, the space-opera, the replayability, and the negotiations, deals and drama it creates. I first asked Dean and Chris to test Fusion (although back then it was “Starship Command”) about 2½ years ago.  Back then, there were crew members, and you had to move them around a schematic of a starship before you could play a command.  It was long and tedious. A lot of changes were made, and a year later I asked them to retest.  It was still long and tedious.  There just weren’t enough decisions to make.  A player decided on a strategy and just kept repeating the commands over and over again, using the time-based mechanic.

I took a grenade to the mechanics and the board, and removed parts of the game all over the place.  A process I have to say, that I am still going through.  Each time I do it, I think that there is nothing that can be removed – they are all critical cogs in my beautiful machine.  Then, during this crucial wonderful play-testing, I’ll observe something, or Dean or Chris will make a comment.  And its not even a specific comment like “I think you should change …, because …”.   One of them will just ask a question “How do I know that …”, and I’ll realise its not intuitive at all, or its something fiddly or different which just doesn’t need to be.  Or I’ll watch one of them doing something, and see that they are not sure how they should be doing it.

This was our first play-test in 18 months.   The game had been radically redesigned, with the most critical change adding a constraint on the ability to play a command. Previously, a player could play the same command over and over again, without any limit.  Now, there were turns.  Not only could a player only play a command once per turn, it went to cooldown, so they could not play it again the following turn.  In a game with 6-8 turns, that was not many plays of each command.

I was extremely nervous, and excited.  Like, I suspect, many game designers, I’ve spent countless hours on this.  1-4 hrs a night, every week night, and often one whole day in the weekend.  Changing the rules, redesigning the cards in my Excel list, then rewriting the cards in the Word document, reprinting them, cutting them out, and play-testing by myself. I’d had a few games with Andrew, and he was instrumental in directly advising about more things that needed to be cut or combined.  There were still too many commands that seemed to do similar things.  I slashed and merged and combined and removed. We finally determined that it was ready for outside consideration, and I asked Chris and Dean to step up for a third time.  Luckily they said yes, I’m sure with some weariness on their part. I wrote a feedback form for them to complete.  Dean was worried that answering some of those questions could affect our friendship.  Luckily I’d taken out the question “Name one personality attribute that Michael needs to improve on”, so assured Dean that his honest feedback could only improve the game.

I already had in my mind that I was possibly flogging a dead horse – (is that a really politically incorrect expression or what?  It implies that flogging a live horse has merit!)  And that him modifying his opinion for the sake of our friendship would not help me at all. Although mild-mannered in real life, Dean and Chris love a game where they get to kill, demolish and slowly squeeze the life out of their opponents.  With the complexity of FUSION, I’d designed the scenarios to slowly introduce new rules, and as such the first one was a simple race to a location.  Considering my testers, I changed the location to Missile Platforms, so that they could exercise their violent tendencies. I’d tested the game 5 or 6 times, and in each test the game lasted 5 or 6 turns.  Dean and Chris’s took 10.  But, I thought it went well.  There was a good energy, and both players had many decisions to make throughout the game.  The finale was very close – Dean was fully prepared and about to demolish Chris, but due to turn order, Chris had one much smaller chance at killing Dean first, which he pulled off.

Neither Dean nor Chris said anything, apart from jokes about being ‘brutally honest’ in their feedback forms.  I laughed along. No feedback forms the following day.  None the second.  I completed the session report and emailed it out, asking if they could do the feedback forms, even just to give a light initial response.  Still no feedback the following day.  That could only be bad.  I consoled myself that I felt the game went well.  I’m sure there’s a market for it, even if Chris and Dean didn’t like it. I booked them in for the next play-test session.  Day before play-session 2, still no feedback.  Oh well – they’d committed to 2 nights of testing, so I’d get what I could from this and work out how to proceed after that.  About an hour or so before play-test 2, Dean emailed me his feedback.  I wasn’t sure whether to read it – if it was harsh, would I be able to put on a brave face?  Argh – harden the fuck up, Brettell.  Here’s some of Dean’s answers, with my added comments in italics.

  1. What is your favourite game? – TI3.  No surprise there
  2. What is your least? Starcraft.  Really?  We’ve played that quite often.  You don’t like it! Who knew?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is your least favourite, 10 is your favourite, where does FUSION sit? 7.  Whoa!  7?  On a scale from Starcraft to TI3, I’d be happy with 1!

So I was very pleasantly surprised.  Dean had other encouraging comments.  Chris’ feedback arrived just before the 3rd play-test: “More enjoyable than I thought it would be – a huge improvement since the last time we played. Dare I say I even quite enjoyed it!!” I know they are our friends, so may well be disposed to give nicer comments than were deserved, but we don’t think they have done so. In any event, this has been a critical testing point, and we continue on our journey!

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