Hurry up!

So we play Tash-Kalar – me, Michał Oracz, Multi and Walec. Another Essen 2013 release that needs to be tested, analyzed and hopefully praised.  After 60 minutes we are done. Alliance of Walec and Multi wins. Both of them are so fucking excited like they just  won at lottery. I mean, I know, they kicked Boss’s ass but hey, chill out boys. ‘You won’t believe it’ Walec says. ‘I have prototype of  the exact the same game. I wanted to present you it in two weeks’ he says to me. ‘Only difference, my board has hexes. Rest exactly the same.’ ‘You won’t believe’ says Multi and takes sheet of paper from his desk. ‘Here is a draft for my prototype. I was going to finish it this year. This is exactly this game.’  And he shows us his notes. This is Tash-Kalar indeed. 

*

So here is my advice, young designers – don’t make notes. Make games. Because when you are taking notes, some one is just finishing his work on this very same idea… 🙂

The player and the designer

[I am happy to present you guest post by Michał Oracz, author of Neuroshima Hex, Witchcraft and Theseus. This is his first appereance and as far as I know, not the last one!] 

I’m a little bit ashamed of that but I must admit I like to play my own games. Whether it is Neuroshima Hex on my smartphone or with real life opponents. Theseus I can play alone or with another player, three players or even in teams.

Witchcraft is the only game I don’t like to play. Because Witchcraft is unforgiving, a slightest mistake you make may cost you the whole game. The bitter feeling that I get after loosing will not be satisfied merely by saying ‘I had no luck with the tokens’. Unless I play solo – than Witchcraft is as pleasurable game as any other.

The eagerness with which I set up Hex or Theseus is suspicious… even for myself. I sit in front of my PC and struggle with some work that has temporarily burned out my enthusiasm and a whole container of inspiration. Hmm, a short break wouldn’t hurt, right? Maybe, a little bit of java power and a short Theseus/Hex match? I wonder what combos I’d put together this time?

I go the other room, I set up the game playing for both sides and in less then a quarter I’m playing a short game sipping my coffee. I always regret that there is no ‘save’ option in board games, especially if I come up with something nasty, so nasty it won’t probably happen again.

Borgo’s mutants totally immobilized by Hegemony’s troops.

The Scientists who are able to found a complete Space Hospital by the end of the game and in one turn they come back to their initial health level.

A construction that has an overpowered automated defense system that takes down enemy troops with just one shot, blasting them from the surface of the Space Station.

A contraption capable of controlling enemy units so that they behave like puppets, barely alive after a short time while the rest of them slowly drift in the outer space.

That’s why I have these urges to stop what I’m currently doing and spend some quality time with Theseus or Hex.

Can no notice what’s wrong with that?

I do. It’s just that I like to play my own games.

It is very, very, very unprofessional. Extremely unprofessional.

A designer should hate his own games. After hundreds of tests and months of creating he should feel sick whenever he sees his game.

It’s not the case with me. And that’s bad.

I like to play my own games because of one simple thing: I created them for myself. To my own liking.

If I were a professional game designer, I would behave like a pro from the very beginning. I would choose a solid theme that would be to almost everybody’s liking. I’d check how popular are the tags connected with are in the game search engines (Lovecraft and Zombie, my forever beloved motifs that became beloved by everybody else and with their popularity they always come up on the top!). I’d read blogs, forums and keep track of the trends and currently discussed mechanics. I would cruise between the testers I know and ask each one of them for an honest opinion, provided I’d be able to pin them down to a board game, whether they would be complete board game noobs, experienced players, extremely experienced authors or publishers.

If I were a professional game designer… See that’s the problem, in the first place I’m player of my own games.

I don’t start a project by saying ‘Hmm I’d like to create a game in which…’. I start with ‘Damn, I’d really enjoy playing a game in which…’.

As you can see theses are often very egocentric impulses.

In my head I have a collection of my dream games, the problem is that some of them are still only in my head. Although I keep on looking through the thousands of existing games some of my dreamed ones haven’t been yet created. It’s the case with board games, computer games and role playing games and that’s a pity because I’d really like to play them!

This is the only reason for my designing. More often than not I delay my normal work and I struggle with yet another version of my dream games, one of my ideal ones. I remake, correct, switch elements, start everything from the beginning because I know what should wait for me at the end. I’m a player with a very abnormal taste and I look for the perfect game for myself. To be more precise a few specific games. I know exactly what is it that I’d like to play! But there is no simple road leading from this knowledge to a ready-made game, at least I haven’t found it.

Finally the magic moment is upon me: here it is, I did it! I’ve got it! I created a good game, I can put my name on it, I’m 100% sure! It’s good enough! Here Ignacy have a look at it!

What does this mean? Just one simple thing. I forgot myself. I started to think as a pro designer: I prepared a solid product, let’s start the tests, let’s talk with the publisher, everything will change but the first stage is complete. Now it’s time for the other stages. Oh I know how it works, I know all too well. For twelve years we’ve been publishing games from the initial idea to a ready-made box. I took this path many times, through the smallest details, tiniest step in the long process of professional game designing and product preparation.

No. Stop. Not this time. It’s just a moment of weakness. I forgot myself and stopped searching for my perfect game. It will be just another title among thousands being published worldwide without any progress to my one true goal.

And than I-the designer get spanked and go for a sick vacation and the I-gamer come out. Merciless, demanding with an atypical taste. A player looking for a game ideal for himself. The best possible game for himself in a given genre and specified theme. I love retro-fantasy, horror, postapocalypse and most of all the claustrophobic sf horror taking place somewhere in space.

Than I look upon the prototype I’ve created once more. Is it for me? Will I loose myself in it and play without even a short break? Will I never get bored by it? Is there a similar game I’d like to play more than this one?

I picture myself after buying a box with this game inside. I’m a consumer. Player. I open, I read the instructions, I start. With a token or a character. I’m trying to see what can be done. What challenges await me, what limits and possibilities. Is this the real thing? The one I’ve been searching for? Can I really do all that I wanted with it? In it? If not that it needs a remake. It needs to once again land on the designing desk.

Is this a good method?

Should everybody share my gusto it would be. But they don’t.

This is a very bad method for professional game designers.

If I was ever to become a professional game designer I’d change it immediately and threw it into the deepest reaches of some long forgotten void. I would instead close the first stage of the designing process as soon as possible and head on to the next ones because this is where the final product is born.

Meanwhile I create games for myself and I keep searching for those few ones about which I’m sure how they should work and look like.

When I will finally repair, correct and polish these few projects that are being grinded all the time I will than have my perfect games. And I will play them all the time.

 ***

Is that all?

Nope. There is one more thing. I’d like to apologize to you all, my good folks. I lied to you. I totally lied to you. A bloggers privilege, isn’t it?

I’m not an exception among game designers, as I’ve tried to persuade you a moment ago.

Each designer has his own code, own style. Often a very particular style, like the one that music bands sometimes have or like a painter, illustrator or a writer.

Each and every designer creates not for everybody but for the people who share his gusto and expectations as far as games are concerned. At least at the prototype stage.

We all try to make the perfect game, the best one that is in it’s genre. And we all do what we can to accomplish that.

Each one of us prays for the largest possible number of players with the same taste. To become the Family Feud master of this domain, it’s not important what you know, it’s important that you think like the rest. So that when somebody asks you on a street: ‘what does a cow drink?’ you will answer with all confidence: ‘milk!’. Just like the majority.

If by some miracle your taste will be similar to the taste of a large number of players, if the later stages of testing and the publishing compromise will only adjust the game to be even more suitable for the demands of an even greater number of players and the game will be a spectacular success, no designer will cry because of this.

Even thou I’m searching for my ideal games, I wouldn’t cry as well.

Testing, part IV

It was late July 2009. Stronghold was ready. I had scheduled few more test games to test icons and overall functionality of the board but basically I was close to finish this project.

It is Saturday night. We are at my friend’s house and I ask them to play Stronghold prototype. I set up the game, Bogas is defender, Salou is attacker. I watch.

We are in the first phase of the first round when something happens. Something I was not prepared for. Something I was not expecting.

Salou looks at cards with actions. Then he looks at me and says: ‘I don’t like these icons. I don’t get them. Fuck them.’ and he takes all his cards and throws away. ‘I will play only Dispatch action today.’ he says.

‘What?!’ I am more than in shock. ‘What are you going to do? Dispatch only?!’

‘I don’t build machines, I don’t train people, I don’t do spells. I just march towards the walls.’ he says and begins to play.

30 minutes later he enters the castle and wins the game with a smile on his face. ‘Have I just found winning strategy?’ he asks.

‘You must be fucking kidding me.’ I say . ‘You guys play again’ I order.

And as a side note – Bogas, player who was defending the castle was one of my best testers, one of the best players in my gaming group. I was devastated. Bogas was pissed off. He was doing his best, and yet, Salou’s army just walked into the castle…

So we play again. Salou is attacking without any other actions than Dispatch. Bogas is defending. I help him. In a fact we work together to stop this bloody army.

In 40 minutes we fail. Salou wins again. He is happy as a kid.

I take prototype and go home. I don’t sleep. I correct the game. Next day I play again with Salou. I loose again. I tweaks prototype again. And again. And again.

Finally it is fixed. Just few weeks before the game is in print…

***

This story is a great example of 4th type of testers and testing. The crazy ones. The ones who act ridiculously. Who do something stupid, and yet, are able to shake the game.

My best tester in this category is Michał Oracz. He tests most unbelievable ways of playing the game. He looks for not straightforward strategies. He looks for holes in my system. He is damn good at this.

We designers and publishers need crazy ones among testers. If we don’t have them, we will read at BGG about one tiny hole in the game that let’s you earn 100 points just from nothing…

***

These are those 4 types of testers I have. These are 4 phases of testing I do. I hope you enjoyed this mini series and it showed you that testing games is not just sitting with friends and playing for fun. This is work, this is very organized work, with different phases, with managing people and different goals at different phases of process.

Keep testing games. This is damn important.

Don’t trust testers!

Walec was testing Robinson with me for a couple of months. He joined us early Spring 2012 and played during Spring and Summer months. After each test game he was telling me that game is good, and better and better. He was lying right in my face. Just like all 99% of other testers. He was telling that there are emotions, choices, lots of action. If I only listened to him…

But I didn’t.

I was trashing cards, and rules and changing and changing and did not listen assurances of playtesters that game is OK. I knew they had no guts to tell me right into my eyes that the game I want to release for Essen sucks.

Designer presenting his prototype is like young mother with her little boy. Do you really believe there is anybody on this planet who will tell her that her sweet child is fat, bold and a squint eyes? With playtesters is the same. Prototype is boring, chaotic, nothing really super cool, but still they pat you on the back and say: ‘It’s OK!’

Bullshit.

***

In the middle of July 2012, after one of the very last test games of Robinson Walec decided to be honest. He said:

‘It was freakin’ amazing. When we played before to be honest, I didn’t like it. It was rather boring every time. I mean,just a game. But today! Today it was extraordinary. I am so excited!’

Yeah…

I know, you moron! – I said in my thoughts – It’s July! Now I finished working on that game and now it is good. Now! And I know you feel excited. And I know you were lying for the past 6 months!

***

This week I playtested with Walec our new project. Few weeks ago we discussed few different variants and now it is a time to check them all. Walec came with his prototype, set up it on the table, explained rules and we began to play. It took about 40 minutes.

‘I can’t produce it that way.’ I said. ‘We would need to change components…’

‘Damn it. I don’t know what to say.’

‘Say nothing. This prototype sucks and it goes to trash anyway. First of all [and I explained one reason]. Second of all [and I explained second reason]. Third of all [and I explained third reason].’

In 3 minutes I destroyed his day and trashed 3 weeks of his work.

I did not hesitate for a second.

***

Play testing is not a tea party at your aunt. This is trashing bad ideas and seeking for good ones. This is not time for being a nice guy.

I hope Walec is pissed off now. I hope he is seeking for revenge. I hope that when I show him one of my prototypes I will no longer hear his damn ‘It is OK’. I hope that with pure satisfaction he will trash my poor ideas.

I hope I finally have a tester, I can trust.

And you, dear designers? Remember – don’t trust testers.

About testing, part III

This story takes place in Gliwice, winter 1997. Long time ago. I am at the collage and of course I run a games club there. We play RPG and miniatures games every Wednesday and Friday evening. I run Warhammer Battle campaign for more than 10 players, with huge map of provinces, with additional set of rules, with development system (when you conquer province you are allowed to get magical stuff, gold, soldiers…). We have a great time.

One day doors open and we see a kid. He may be 15 years old. OK, maybe 16. Kid. He enters and silently says something like: ‘I’ve heard you can play Warhammer Battle here…’

We look at each other and laugh. You know, we were at collage and this 15 years old kid…

Finally Tom points his finger at kid and asks: ‘You play? I challenge you! My name is Tom by the way.’

***

Before we move on, few words about Tom. I met him few years earlier. He was ‘munchkin type’ player. He exploited every single game he played. I met him when I was playing Doom Trooper CCG, then we played Warhammer Batle, then many other games. He always won. And always broke the system to do that. No remorse. No conscience. No honor.

Tom was exploiting my Warhammer campaign those days. He played Undead army. None of players in the campaign had a magical weaponry yet(because of development rules they needed to conquer lands with magical weapons before they could have them) so he used Wraights regiment in the campaign. Wragihts were immune to non-magical weapons.

Yeah. That kind of player.

That day when kid entered our club Tom had something about 10 wins in a row in a campaign and still no fucking idea about fair play.

So he challenged a kid. He saw it as a easy prey.

And you all probably know how the story goes then…

***

Next week kid came to our club with his Wood elves army. He set up his forces and in 20 minutes defeated Tom.

Just like that.Kicked his ass in less than half an hour.

Even today, when I am writing this right now, 17 years later, I am still smiling. That was amazing.

After 30 minutes it was over and Tom was defeated. He was standing in the room and couldn’t believe what just happened. Kid was looking at us not fully understanding why we all have big smiles on our faces. ‘Someone would play with me? It was quite short.’ he asked.

***

How it was possible that he crushed Tom? He spent some time preparing to the battle and thinking what he can do best. And he did it.He approached Tom’s regiment with elven Wardancers unit, made a special dance and direct all 18 hits against one model – Vampire, general of the Undead army. Vampire was not a Wright. Was not immune to non magical weapon. Kid killed general and Wraights vanished. Simple. He hit precisely in the guts.

***

17 years later we are still friends. I play with Kid football every Monday. We play RPG games, we discuss games, we are really good friends.

With Tom we are friends too. In the meantime Tom has won couple of tournaments. He was European Champion in L5R CCG. Twice. And Vampire CCG European Champion too. Not to mention winning Polish Champion few years in a row in both games. He is winning every competition he starts. Fair play? Not too much. Exploiting holes in the rules? Oh yes!

As you suppose both of these guys are my testers. Most of my games were tested by them. Why? Because they are best players I met in my life. If my game has a winning strategy, they will find it and point it out.

I have Mst in my team too, the guy who three times in a row won our local board game league – beating all those nerds who love Brass, Agricola, Le Havre…

Michal Oracz goes to tournaments of NS HEX and looks for best players. If he sees a very good player, he adds him to his very own NS HEX team – group of best players in Poland. They help Michal test new armies.

***

That’s how it works. That’s what you need if you design games. You don’t have to be smart ass. You just have to know one.

I am not that good player. I can not play my games. I play and I got kicked every time. But this is OK, as long as I have team who supports me. Team of very good players who search for holes in my games, players who play very well and who can really find winning strategies that are brilliant.

***

I know there is a smartass living out there who will beat my team one day. I know it is coming. I will read on BGG that someone found a winning strategy in one of my games. And I will cry.

But you guys have to do your best to find it. Because my team found most of them before I published the game. And if there is a hole in one of my games, it is hidden really really deep.

I challenge you. Beat my team. Find a hole.

Give them fun!

I spent Christmas playing games. Of course I played with Merry for most of the time, but I played with my kids too. And after this – nearly two weeks – of pure gaming I have this reflection: For Christ’s sake! Stop designing memory games! Don’t you have any other ideas? Don’t you know that kids like adventures. They want fun. They want princess and dragons. They want enchanted forests and magical potions. Cool stuff. Not another fucking memory game.

My this year’s Essen game is in jeopardy. I may sit at my desk and start work on a kids game. I am really sick of poor kids games. Children deserve something more.

About testing, part II

3 weeks ago I started Kickstarter campaign. This is a book with collection of best articles from this blog + few more written for the book (exclusive content, yay!).

It was planned as a small campaign for most dedicated readers of my blog. I needed 1000 bucks to have this book printed in a small print run. I planned to make happy… me and 50 backers. That was my dream – have a book with my articles about game design.

Soon after it turned out that there is much more readers here than I could ever expect…

In 3 weeks I have nearly 10 000 USD gathered. Campaign is heading to have 400 backers. Because of stretch goals achieved I have honor to have my idols as a guests in the book – great designers like Bruno Cathala, Antoine Bauza, Vlaada Chvatil, Geoff Engelstein, Mike Selinker, Seiji Kanai… All joined me to create amazing book with stories about game design.

Kickstarter has slogan that says ‘Funding the dream.’

I want to say it very clearly – I could never ever dream about what just happened. This campaign went far beyond my imagination could ever go. I am publishing a book with best designers on this planet.

Because of your support.

I can not tell you how much I appreciate it. Thank you so so much.

***

When I am done with silent tester, prototype has its foundations ready. I am more or less satisfied with the prototype. It is time to play with new breed of testers – brilliant idea testers. 

You need guys who have many ideas. They will try to change your prototype into game they would like. You give them a prototype and you watch what they suggest. I prefer to work with silent testers, but yes, there is this moment, when you need those guys. They will overflow you with their ‘brilliant’ ideas.

‘It would be cool if in my turn I could do…’
‘Hey, what do you think if you add one more…’
‘You know, I am missing in your game one element you could change…’

I hate it. But this is important part.

They give you ideas, but remember – you have your foundations. You have your armor – ideasproof prototype of the game. You know which of tester’s ideas won’t work for you. And once a while there will be idea suggested that really works. You take it. You improve your prototype. You say ‘Thank you’ to the tester.

All the other ideas… discard them with no mercy.

Never sit with guys who have their own ideas and who love to share them before you are ready to do that. If you don’t have foundation ready, you will be like a flag – you will change your game with every suggestion of tester. This is bad. You will change, and change and change and not move forward.

Have a base.
Then listen to suggestions.
Discard most of them.
Use few – only those which work with the base.

First silent tester.
Then brilliant idea tester.
Then crazy tester. I will cover crazy testers next week.