Removing the Cruft

What a productive two weeks it’s been. The game has changed significantly for the better and I am excited about it.

Early on, I met up for lunch with an acquaintance that recently had one of his designs published. Among other helpful tips, he encouraged me to use Internet art to spruce up my game while it’s still unpublished. This temporary art (rather than my crummy doodles) help frame the game, establish a more solid theme, make it look more polished for playtesters/publishers, and deliver the mindset that the game is close to being finished. This more professional look is useful for gathering feedback.

As a result, I spent some time pulling illustrations from the talented community over at Deviant Art. There is so much good art there! (You just have to look past the endless TF2 recreations, bloody hospital beds and homoerotic Brony fantasies.) I grabbed a bunch of sci-fi-esc rooms, buildings and spy art. I printed them onto labels, then cut and pasted them onto cardboard squares from my prototyping toolbox. The art doesn’t necessarily make the game more fun, but it does make it feel more cohesive.

In another form of progress, I welcomed a new playtester to the game. It was great to see the game in motion without me playing it. It went fairly well for this point in the process. I later made player reference cards to prepare for the coming month of playtesting with new people (GAMA and GDC!). I’m also trying the game out with my Dad soon, so I want that beginning step to be as smooth as possible. Each reference card has the steps of a typical turn on one side, and the spy skill descriptions/requirements on the other side.

Speaking of spy skills, I’ve decided to remove two of the seven abilities to keep the game as streamlined as possible. Playtesters weren’t using one of the skills often, and the other skill seemed like it was its own game in itself. They won’t leave entirely, though. At some point I’ll try to let players pick from a pool of asymmetric team abilities (similar to Cosmic Encounter), and I could see these making a comeback there. What one player doesn’t use often could be a core tactic to a different player.

On a different note, I’ve wavered between starting players with a small part of their spy team and starting players with their whole spy team. It turns out that building up a team instead of letting it dwindle over time proves to be a much better arc for this game (despite the fun of elimination-style gym-class dodgeball). With that being said, it’s been tough figuring out how to let players build up their teams. The most recent iteration of money and spy hiring has felt off-theme, unrewarding, and painful to maintain during gameplay.

To address these issues, I ended up removing money and going with a more simplified model to hire spies. Removing these game mechanics also means I was able to remove game components. This combination is great for a number of reasons:

  1. More player-focus on action and strategy rather than game maintenance.
  2. Less table clutter and visual distraction.
  3. Faster setup time (especially useful for playtesting).
  4. Less for new players to learn, which means they can start playing faster and teach their friends faster.
  5. Lower cost of goods.

Don’t worry, I haven’t simplified the game TOO much, I’ve just wrangled it in a bit.

Along with these changes, I made a major change in the level design department. In many game sessions, I noticed that spies weren’t interacting enough, yet this is where a lot of the fun is. Also, moving spies around the board felt boring. In reaction to these two things, I stripped the “whitespace” out of the game board completely. In other words, I removed every space that was not tied to game mechanics in some way. This keeps the spies in close quarters to each other. It also sped up movement by 30 to 50%. Base-to-base travel used to take a spy 6 turns, but now it takes 4. Traveling from base to the closest item card used to take 2 turns, now it takes just 1. These sound like small changes on paper, but they help the game move tremendously.

The game is now more consistent in its behavior from game to game, which is helpful for me as I tune it in the future. Its consistency reaches more than just pacing and interaction; the game now produces a number of emotional moments. And they aren’t just at the end of the game anymore, they happen throughout the experience. I’m not saying the game is incredible – there are still minor mechanic changes and a bunch of polish to go — but I’m happy with its progress.