Playtest Dublin: Session Report!

On September 12, 2017 we held another mid-week playtest session. Robin, Ethan, and Patrick share their thoughts and feedback on the night, what they learned, and where they’re going to go from here.


Having just come back from holiday, this was my first playtest in a few weeks. Some time has elapsed since I last tested one of my more ambitious designs, and I was eager to get it to the table to re-familiarise myself and re-engage myself with the design. But before that…

Robin and I arrived earliest, and I whipped out a small game called Hatsuden, which I’d picked up on holidays in Japan. I won’t write about it too much except to say the graphic design is wonderful, and it looks great on the table.




The first game we tested, Dynasties, was a neat little rondel game designed by Ethan. It was inspired by a rondel game Robin designed, which was inspired by a game called Jeju Island. It’s some kind of rondel-ception going on. Unsurprisingly, it is Ethan, it was really good. There is a stack of chips at every point on the rondel, and on your turn you pick up one stack, and deposit the chips around the rondel. Then you activate each spot, affecting either the first player (emperor), the whole group, the group minus the emperor or just one specific player, depending on the colour chip that’s on top. Everything worked, but sometimes we ended up with large stacks on particular spots, which led to some analysis paralysis as players tried to work through the permutations. Chips are added to the board as the game goes on, but they’re not removed, meaning the permutations become longer and more complicated. Also, I felt some of the actions weren’t that compelling, and we discussed making their strength depend on the number of chips in the stack. I’m looking forward to seeing where Ethan take it.


Dynasties with unofficial Gundam mini!


Next, we played Unfinished Business, a game Robin has designed as a Halloween game. I’m not sure how much I want to give away with this, but it involved trying to draw pictures to communicate ghostly messages. It was intended to be spooky, but it ended up being plain hilarious. The biggest challenge facing this game is the content: what you’re asked to communicate will make or break the game. One card that came up had the word “terrorise” on it. How do you draw “terrorise”? There also needs to be some clarification about what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to communication between players. Can the player who is drawing answer yes/no questions? Can they nod, smile, shake their head? Or can they only communicate via the picture?


Unfinished Business creating some laughs.


Next, I got to bring my game, Agency to the table. As I said, it’s been a while, and I forgot one or two of the rules. Luckily Ethan and Robin had played it previously and were able to help remember how it worked. Agency is a mid-weight, Euro-style game where the players are running advertising agencies, fulfilling contracts for companies and earning money. The way the economy works in the game is a little odd and counter-intuitive. I won’t go into too much detail, as it’s hard to explain, but the game has a lot of opaque information. Money flows to the corporations, and from the corporations to the players. Players must spend money to make money, which is also your victory points. I think there’s something there, but it doesn’t quite click yet. Some of the actions the players can take aren’t very well incentivised, or parts that the players just don’t seem to care about. I’m also using worker placement as the action selection mechanic, which isn’t the most compelling, but it works and makes sense. I need to address some of these. I have a few ideas, as well as receiving some suggestions, so I’m looking forward to iterating on this in the coming weeks and months.


Strategising in Agency!


Finally, we got to playtest Robin’s second edition of Movable Type. I’m a big fan of the first edition. The two biggest changes were the addition of a separate vowel deck, which guarantees you at least one vowel in the centre for each round. The hand size was also increased to 6 cards as opposed to 5. Overall, the game felt easier. The words that were scoring were much higher than I’ve seen in the past. Even though I only used it once (I think), the vowel deck is a great addition, as it allows you a certain flexibility, and a solid base that you can work off of when drafting. The bigger hand…I’m not so sure on that one. As I mentioned, the scores were getting bigger, and part of the charm of Movable Type is that you don’t need to know larger words to play and win.


Paddy’s winning word, adding insult to injury!


And that was that! It was a great evening of testing. We were joined by a number of students from Pulse College for the first time, and while I didn’t get to chat to them much, they’re an exciting addition to the playtest evening. I hope they had fun and I’m looking forward to gaming with them in future.


We had a good turnout in terms of testers this week, but relatively few new games to play. This worked out pretty well for us designer though, as it meant we got to stress test our games at larger player numbers!

I only brought one game this week, tentatively named Dynasties (it’ll definitely be changing), and was mainly looking for feedback on a new mechanic in it I had never tried out before. The core gameplay consists of manipulating stacks of poker chips around a game board; picking them up and dropping chips off on top of other stacks. Each stack has its own effect at the end of the turn, and which color of chip is on top determines who gets to take an action or gains victory points at the end of the turn, based on that player’s role. But players’ roles change each turn, so maybe you don’t want to leave your successor in too strong of a position…

I got to play it through twice with different groups and even make some slight changes in between the two games. The biggest take away was: holy decision fatigue Batman! The individual rules and mechanics were easy for players to pick up, but the board state became very complex very quickly. As a first real stress test at 5 players though I can live with that result. I think I can cut the total number of components in play to bring the complexity down a bit and I also got some great feedback on ways to make the various stacks and actions more interactive. Although of course, adding interactivity in risks adding complexity back into the game so we’ll see how it shakes out in future playtesting!


Choosing how to distribute your stack of chips is hard!


I also got to play two games from other people this week; Unfinished Business, a hilarious game of ghostly séances from Robin, and Agency, a deep game of digital marketing agencies and stock options from Paddy.

In Unfinished Business, one player is a ghost and has to communicate some task that still needs doing to the rest of the players through an odd form of communication. It had a lot of rough edges rules-wise in terms of exactly how the ghost-player could give out clues and respond to the other players, but it almost didn’t matter because the core conceit and mechanic of the game is just so damn strong! (And I have omitted it on purpose, I’ll let Robin share it if he likes!)

I had played an earlier version of Agency a few months ago, and I do not envy Paddy the work he has had to put in on balancing the game. In Agency, players run marketing companies so they are competing for demographics, platforms, and most importantly profitable contracts! It is a medium-to-heavy complexity game and can take some time to get the hang of. For example, as an early strategy you can score a lucrative contract and then do a bad job fulfilling it for a quick cash injection; but the different companies only have so much budget so that tactic doesn’t work in the long run. There is also a whole system of earning stock options in the NPC companies that payout at the end of the game, so you have to pay attention to the health of your own marketing company, your opponents marketing companies, and the NPC companies you are taking contracts from.


In previous versions of the game, there was too little encouragement to do a good job matching contracts and demographics to actually make the parent companies money. A rebuild of the stocks system that was tried out this time helped alleviate that and I think further refinement of the way demographics are handled will really make the game shine. Fighting for contracts and platforms to launch your ads on already is deep, tense, and a lot more fun than a business management theme might initially suggest!


It was fantastic to see loads of new faces at the event this week and this served as a reminder of just how exciting the local gamedev scene can be.

The first prototype of the evening was Ethan’s mancala game. I won’t repeat Ethan and Paddy’s comments, but just emphasise how much potential I see in it. I adore the mancala mechanic of picking and sowing and am a little surprised we don’t see it very often in modern boardgames – Five Tribes and Jeju Island being the only examples I can think of.

Then we played my own party-game, Unfinished Business. Again, as Paddy and Ethan mentioned, it’s a drawing game about receiving messages from restless ghosts. I was surprised at how well it went down, considering how little planning went into it. There were a few issues with unclear rules, scoring, and I hadn’t put much thought into the cards – so those are things I want to look at for next time.

Unfinished Business is a result of making games for the local 1GAM event (1 Game A Month). In 1GAM, all participants are given a theme and have to make a micro-game in that theme. For Unfinished Business, the theme was “spooky”. 1GAM mainly focussed on digital gamedev, but I’ve never let that stop me before! It’s also is the same event that inspired me to make Dill with It ( the theme was “banana”) and BentoBlocks ( the theme was “guilt”, which I strayed very far from!). So apparently I work well with weird artificial constraints. I seriously encourage all game designers to give 1GAM a try.


Paddy’s marketing game, Agency, is an older game about running marketing campaigns for three sci-fi companies. It has a really interesting economy in it with a Dutch auction mechanic at its centre, but it seems like Paddy needs to find a way to incentivise certain player behaviours, because otherwise everyone plays like a dick and the economy collapses after a few turns. One thing I love about Agency is that it feels like a fresh design – not derivative of anything I’ve played before. And that’s the reason why I think it does feel a little opaque – it’s just a very novel idea and it takes a little while for the rules to click, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing!


After a few rounds, money and tokens everywhere – Agency creates some interesting decision spaces!


Then I played Unfinished Business with a bunch of university students – they were having a lot of fun with it and their comments helped me clarify some issues with the tone of the game.

We finished the evening by playing Movable Type: Second Edition. I’m just tweaking some final changes and making sure that any cards I add to the game don’t break the existing design. We tried using a slightly bigger hand size, but the increased number of choices meant that the choices you made in the drafting phase didn’t have the same impact – so that change is now gone! Overall, I’m really happy with the latest version. It’s working well with higher player counts and the number of ties has been drastically reduced – the biggest problem I had with the first edition game.

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