The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 3 (Some Explanations)

Fred Hicks, one of the guiding lights at Evil Hat Productions, has a good post about the game that I and my family have had a chance to play test, giving some evocative quotes and summaries about the game from some of the other play testers.  I wanted to take a moment to post again about the game, but from a slightly different perspective.

The other day, a neighbor who had seen some of my playtest posts asked me what it was I was doing.  The idea of this kind of game and the design process, including play testing, was outside of his experience, and, as I looked through his eyes and his questions, I could see that my writing was completely in a foreign language for him.  Whether or not it is coherent enough for people more on the inside of gaming is not for me to say, but I though I would do my best to, as a post script to the whole experience, try to more expansively describe what the playtest experience was about and what was this game we were playing.

I won't claim that I am such a good communicator that anyone will be able to understand from what I write, but I hope that I can be more clear and more detailed in this capstone to allow this to be more accessible and more understandable. 

And maybe it can, in some small way, bring people more towards the world of game playing that I enjoy and that the game, Zeppelin Armada, represents.

So, let me define first what my role was in the game design process, and then explain what the game itself was about (while protecting the still in development intellectual property of the game).

Games and the Design Process:

Games are part of almost every human culture throughout time.  Many games have been with us for a long time and they take lots of different shapes.  Some are games we play as children with various amounts of rules, such as tag, Red Rover, Sardines, hopscotch, 4-square, etc.  Some of these games require a certain number of people of equipment, but the knowledge of these games are pretty much passed down on the playgrounds of the world, if not from parent to child.  Other games like Chess, Checkers, and a million card games (poker, bridge, spades, hearts, canasta, pinochle) are more formal in their components (a board, chess pieces, decks of cards, etc.) and rules.  Many of these games are hundreds or even thousands of years old in their origin.

Then, we also have more modern games that we have grown up with.  Their age may be measured in perhaps a century or decades, but we know them well and love them.  These are games like Monopoly, Risk, Sorry, Stratego, Clue, Life, etc.  Generally, they are considred "board games" because their central feature is that there is a board that is the center of the game's action, and while there may be cards, dice, and game pieces to move around, the board definse the game for us.

If you think about how many games there are (maybe how many are just stuffed in your closet or on a shelf in your basement) you begin to realize how many games have come and gone.

And yet, we love games, and creative people love to make and sell games and new ones continue to appear.  Some are destined to be classics, many are destined to entertain for a play or two and then gather dust.

Yet, how is a game made today?

While I don't think there is a single "scientific" process, there are definite phases of development which a successful game has to go through.  It starts with an idea from an individual or group of designers who want to do something through a game.  The idea may start as a particular mechanic (way you play a game) or theme (what the game is about, like Clue is about solving a murder mystery or Monopoly is about making money) or some combination.  From the basic idea, you have to come up with the medium of play (a board, cards, dice, hand gestures, whatever), determine the goal (have the most money, capture the king, get around the board first, etc.) and form the rules (who goes first, how are pieces moved, when is it somebody else's turn, etc.). 

That can be, you might expect, a lot of work.  There can be, I think, a lot of trial and error.  From moving from the starting idea to a rough outline of why you play (goal), how you play (rules) and where you play (medium [e.g. on a board]) is a lot of work.  And, of course, once you have all that done, the designer can think that it all makes perfect sense.  But, until the game is explained to and played with other people outside of the design group, there is no way to know if the game really works and really is fun.

So, you have to start testing the game, and thus, the playtest. 

Typically, I think a game goes through an "in house" playtest.  That is, the designer or design group plays with people they know and explain and guide the play.  This is good, because the designers can be challenged to explain and clarify issues about how the game is played and to start to deal with design issues which they may not have thought of (what happens if two players are in the same space?).  The down side of this, is that because the game is still under the direct control of the designers, it is hard to tell if the game will work out in the real world. 

Have you ever noticed how many times you learn a game because someone explains it to you, rather than reading the rules?  Games often are transmitted much more easily from an experienced player to a new player.  Rules are looked up in novel situations, and to settle disputes, but often, most players never read through the whole rule book.

However, with a new game, the game will not spread far if the designers have to go and explain the game play to you personally.  Instead, they have to be able to write rules and provide components (board, cards, dice, whatever) that are sufficiently clear and self-explanatory so that someone whom the designer will never meet can buy the game, read the rules, and play and (most importantly) have fun.

So, that is why an external playtest is important.  The external playtest releases the rules and components to one or more outside groups to review and play on their own.  Then, as they run across things that don't seem clear or that don't seem to work in a game, they can give feedback to improve the rules, or to improve how the rules are written, and to improve and hone the game.

Some games will go through multiple external playtests, so that the game play and written rules can be really polished and ready for eventual marketing.

And that, of course, is the next move.  Once playtest is over and the game is "done," then the work begins.  You have to figure out how to manufacture the compoents (rule book, board, cards, dice, etc. etc.),  How to assemble those components.  How to package the game.  How to pay for the labor that goes into all of those things, and establish a market, and figure out storage, shipping, and pricing.

And eventually, people have to learn about the game, play it, like it, and most importantly, buy it.  That is, if you are doing this commercially.

And, since I am not actually either a professional or amateur game designer, I probably left out some steps, but, I think you get the idea.  The process of creating a game is pretty complex, time consuming, and potentially costly.

So, where did I fit in as far as this new game, Zeppelin Armada?

Me and the Playtest

My family and I were selected to participate in the initial external playtest of the game.

How did this happen?  Well, I keep tabs on a few blogs by smart people who do interesting things.  One of them is Fred Hicks, whom I mentioned above, and one day he mentioned that he was looking for playtesters for this new game in development by Evil Hat.  On impulse, I responded with my interest, and I was one of the first five who responded in the manner he requested.  We got added into a google group which was created to manage the external playtest process, and within days, I had access to the draft rules and the files from whcih I could create the essential components of the game to try it out.

This was my first time as a playtester, and it was exciting to be part of a creative process which is going to result in a game that goes out to the public.

So, what we had to do was, of course, play the game.  We also had to record how things went in the game and respond to a questionaire each time we played.  In it, we addressed specific questions the designers had about how the game went, and also had an opportunity to give opinions and observations about what we liked and did not like about the game.

We sent all that in (by e-mail) and our input, along with the other testers, is all be considered in a redraft of the game. 

We will be participating in a second round of testing which will examine the revised game.

And let me just say, as an aside, that the information super highway really makes this process a lot easier than it has ever been.

And what do we get paid?  We get credit and thanks in the printed materials when the game comes out.  For a small game company like Evil Hat, the reward is really to participate in the creative process.  If successful, we might get a copy of the game, but that is not really the point.  The point is to do something fun and constructive with interesting and fun people.

All in all, it has been a good experience.

The Game Itself

So, what is the game?

It is not a computer game.  Nor is it really a board game.

It is a game centered around a fun theme: Zeppelins and villains. 

Zeppelins were, for a short time, an important civilian and miliatry form of air transport.  During the 1930s especially, they fueled people's imagination and romantic sense of travel, adventure and scientific progress.  While the Hindenburg crash did not end the Zeppelin era, per se, it took the shine off of it.  Still, many look back to that time and cannot help but imagine wild and amazing adventures centered around Zeppelins.  This is especially true because the Zeppelin Age was also the age of the pulp fiction hero.  From detectives (think Sam Spade) to masked vigilantes (like The Shadow, or The Green Hornet) to space heros (like Flash Gordon), this era of pop culture burst with amazing adventures of derring do and mad science.

So, the idea of the game is to take your flagship and fleet of Zeppelins and rule the air.  You play not as a hero, but rather as one of several competing villains, the kind who would have given Flash Gordon or Doc Savage a run for their money.

Each player gets to choose a villain and his or her flagship, and then builds an armada to take down the other players and rule the skies.

The game is a card game, in that the play centers on cards, but not from a traditional deck, with traditional cards in suits (hearts, spades, etc.).  Instead, the cards are a combination of game pieces, like those you might use in Risk or Battleship, and game effects, like the Chance or Community Chest cards in Monopoly.

Besides cards, there are a few other things needed which come, not with the game, but from things you are likely to have around the house.  Some dice (traditional cube, six sided), a coin, and some counters (could be beads, stones, or other coins), just some things to help keep track of stuff that is going on in the game.

After choosing a villainous flagship, each player gets a number of Zeppelins with which to start an armada.  Rather than a board, each player has a formation of Zeppelin cards.  They have to be around the flagship, so that, at any one time, the most there can be down is a three by three square of Zeppelin cards, centered on the flagship.  Each Zeppelin has different qualities that help define how good it is in battle.

Each player then also gets a hand of cards.  These cards may include additional Zeppelins that can be played, as well as weapons with which to launch attacks on rivals, characters that can be played on Zeppelins to make they work better (for yours) or work worse (for your opponents), conditions that change the way the game is played, and events that can help you or hurt your opponents.

The game proceeds in turns, and each player gets to make decisions about how to play cards, discard cards and draw cards.  Attacks against fellow players are frequent, and really, the ultimate point of the game.  You are trying to be the last one standing, just like Risk, for example.

The game, once you get the rules and understand the different qualities of Zeppelins, etc., plays pretty fast.  Still, a whole game goes, generally about a hour and a half. 

It is a very directly competative game.  You are trying to directly beat the other playes by eliminating them (again, like Risk or Battleship).  If you play in the spirit of fun, it can be great to blow up your opponent's vessels, play a card to escape certain destruction of your own airships, and to try to be the most daring and merciless villain to cut a swath of destruction through the skies.

We are very much looking forward to trying out the new and improved game and doing what we can to suggest any additional changes that will help bring it out of testing and into production so that someday, not to long from now, anyone can pick up a deck, pull together a few things that are around the house, and engage in a battle royale for control of the skies.

I hope, in my long winded, way, I have explained what I have been up to and why.

Play on!