Playtesting is User Research (Journal Entry 3)
A lot has happened in the time since my last design journal- I completed my UX bootcamp, moved to a new city, and I've been interviewing for jobs- so I'm just going to get right into it.
I was able to conduct a few playtests since I my last blog, and I've developed the idea quite a lot. The flavor is still fully abstract for the tests I've done, but I'm now using the puzzle as a central, resource-generating mechanic in a broader game.
I'll start by talking about the problems I found through playtesting, then I'll introduce the new rules and discuss why I believe they solve those problems.
But first, I want to thank everyone who has helped me test the game so far! Thanks to Elisha, Kelsey, Joel, Neha, Luke, Rachel, Mondo, Pat, Thomas, and the fine folks at GDONC Asheville!
(The game has been through several iterations, so these pictures won't line up perfectly with the new ruleset below).
1) I like the structure of having everyone score on everyone's turn, but after a couple of playtests, I found that it was really hard for players to strategize around it. Players were typically focused on making a move that would complete one circle, and no one was able to think about the effect their moves would have on the other four circles. This meant that even when a player made what felt like a "good move," the other colors would sometimes score just as many points as them. In fact, once when I was testing the game with two players, the third color actually scored more than either player. That's no fun.
2) Sometimes, the board would get into a state where the best move was too obvious. If the blue player created a purple circle and the red player went next, it made no sense for them to disrupt the purple circle. On the yellow player's turn, it only made sense to disrupt the purple circle if it helps them develop a circle of their own. It felt like the game could be "solved."
3) It took a long time for players to get comfortable making strategic moves with the puzzle- I wanted to find a way to onboard them to the game, slowly building the complexity over time.
4) The game is designed for 3 players. Even though I made rules variants for 2 and 4 players, they are clearly adaptations of the 3 player version. For the sake of marketability, the game should feel like it scales well for a wider variety of player counts.
The New System
Here are the rules for the game as it now stands- click the links above for the rules and a Print-and-Play file for the cards. (The only non-printable components are tokens or chips of the 3 primary colors and the 3 secondary colors- I've been using colored chips like this.
If you prefer to read the rules in your browser, scroll through the carousel below (you can click the images to expand them).
A "Solved" Game
In the original version, each player chose one primary color at the beginning of the game and scored points each round directly from the Puzzle. Players found it hard to strategize and often made moves that benefited other players too much. In other scenarios, the best move was obvious. Too often, players felt like they either had no choice, or didn't know how to make a good choice.
I decided to separate the victory points from the Puzzle's board state, and instead have the Puzzle generate resources that players can spend elsewhere to generate victory points. By adding an extra layer in between the board state and the players' victory conditions, players don't have to worry so much about scoring for other players. Instead, they can focus on their own goals- the resources they need to collect and the Circle Cards they want to make.
The reason why I liked having all players score on everyone's turn was that it promotes engagement for non-active players. A common problem in board games is that players will check out when it's not their turn- they'll get their phones out, start a side conversation, or otherwise disengage.
My solution for this is the Circle Card system:
Each player has two Circle Cards at all times. Any time they see one of their Circles on the board, they may reveal it, lay it down to add to their Victory Points, and draw a new card. This system incentivizes players to watch the board during other players' turns.
Some of the Ability Cards also allow support this goal by allowing players to collect resources on other players' turns.
Another problem I encountered during playtesting was that players rarely had any incentive to "mess up" the board, so once a circle was complete, it rarely changed. I decided to make the Circle Cards worth more on your turn, so players would have a reason to make moves that were purely "bad" in the old system. The more the circle messes up the board, the more points it is worth on your turn.
New Player Onboarding
New players found it difficult to make strategic moves in the old system, and part of the problem was the sheer number of choices- there were lots of ways to manipulate the puzzle, and players couldn't visualize the way their moves would affect the board.
My solution for this is the Ability Card system:
Players start with just one ability: Swap.
This ability teaches players to look for specific "nodes" on cards- for example, if one of the central Color Wheels is orange in the top left, top right, and bottom left, a player needs to replace the bottom right card with one that has an orange node in the top left corner if they want to complete an orange circle.
The first abilities that a player can purchase are Shift and Rotate.
Slowly increasing a player's abilities helps to teach them how to think about manipulating the Puzzle. Shift allows players to move a half circle all at once. Later abilities allow players to move a whole circle at once, or to make multiple moves on their turn.
The Puzzle is a unique mechanic, and even with the reduced abilities, some players still find it difficult to strategize at first. This system doesn't fix the analysis paralysis that some might experience (especially at first), but it does reduce the cognitive load by slowly teaching them how to think about the Puzzle.
I may eventually introduce an alternate setup for players who are already familiar with the Puzzle, probably allowing them to start the game all of the Starter Abilities.
The next step is to continue to playtest and make new iterations! I'm happy with where the game stands, but there are lots of improvements to be made. Here are some things I'll be focusing on in future playtests:
Players should be collecting and spending resources at a fair rate. I'm not sure what that rate is quite yet, but I'll be fine tuning the card costs and ability cards to ensure that no one ever feels stuck.
This also applies to the Victory Points- I want to make sure that players accrue points at a rate that feels balanced and fair. (In my last playtest, the end game scores were 10, 12, 13, and 15. This is great for balance, but it's something to keep an eye on nonetheless.)
There are currently only 25 Ability Cards, (not including Starter Abilities) and only 7 are unique. I'll be looking for ways to add variety to the Ability Cards to increase the game's replayability.
Theme and Accessibility
I'm still thinking about ways to add flavor and theme to the game, but I may wind up keeping the abstract color theme- it works well for the analytical, puzzle-based gameplay. But even if I stick with a purely abstract flavor, I will want to find a way to make it accessible for colorblind players- why exclude 8% of men and .5% of women if you can find a way to make it work for everyone?