Last week, I joined Matthew Bivens and the Game Development Guild at GHCHS for an afternoon of playtesting. Thanks Guild!
There were about 12 people at the meeting, some left early, some arrived late, some just wanted to watch, as they had other stuff they were working on. The end result was two games of four players.
Overall, everybody had fun. There were ups and downs. Some people were temporarily ticked as their carefully constructed landscapes were damaged by fire, opponents, or Evil Squirrels. But they all handled it in a good natured way, and everyone had a good time. The also offered some good feedback on game mechanics, which I greatly appreciate.
Once again, the most important feedback was seeing that they had fun. I’m constantly wary of the possibility of creating something that only I would enjoy, or something that is overly pedantic, and not actually fun. For this reason, it’s incredibly gratifying to me to see people have fun with the game, especially when those people are young-type folks. This is, really and truly, the number one goal of the game.
I took about a half hour to explain the game, in part because we digressed into a discussion of the Fire mechanic, and burn order. I asked them to pay particular attention to this issue, as the current rules cause discomfort in my gut. For this session, we used the following Fire rules:
- Each player must lay out their land cards in one horizontal row.
- When you buy a new land, that land must be placed on the right-hand end of your lands.
- When there is a Fire Event, roll the black-and-white die to determine which lands are burned, and then update those lands from left-to-right.
We called off the gaming after about 70 minutes, to make sure that there was time for discussion. At that 70 minute mark, it appeared that both groups were on track to finish in another 15-20 minutes, so that total game time would have been around 90 minutes.
I’m constantly amazed by the way that group dynamics influence play. As I noted earlier, there was lots of interaction, and lots of messing with other players. One result was that there was a reasonable number of empty lands, off-and-on throughout both games. This was a big contrast to the previous playtest, in which there were almost never any empty lands.
When a plant Propagates or Invades, someone has to decide what to do with the child. In previous playtests, there was an unnecessarily complex set of rules which described which player should make that choice. In this playtest, I unintentionally skipped over that section of the rules, which meant that the players were free to find their own way. They never asked about it, and instead simply did what felt right to them, which happened to be very similar to one of the alternate options that I had considered. Given that we all independently came up with the same idea, I think it’s a good one, and I’ll be incorporating it into the next version of the official rules.
There are three parts to this rules update:
- When a Native Plant Invades, the child Plant may either be placed on an empty land which is owned by the same person as the parent OR it may bump an Invasive Plant which is owned by the same person as the parent. A Native-type child Plant may not bump a fellow Native Plant.
- When an Invasive Plant Invades, the child Plant may either be placed on an empty Land which is owned by the same person as the parent, OR it may bump an unprotected Native that is owned by the same person as the parent (i.e. one that doesn’t have the green protection-from-invasion icon). An invasive-type child Plant may not bump another Invasive Plant.
- When a Plant Card either Propagates or Invades, the owner of the parent plant may choose where to place the child (within the normal constraints of the Propagate/Invade mechanic).
All the players picked up on the game pretty quickly. The most common mistake was making assumptions about plant behavior. Players tended to generalize, and that led to mistakes. The most common mistake was to think that all native plants were harmed by fire. As fire-loving natives are relatively rare within the game, players came to expect that natives would be harmed by fire, even when a card specifically said otherwise. I saw several people try to damage or discard burned Oaks or Whispering Bells, and corrected them. By the end of the game, they’d mostly learned the plants, and this was no longer a problem.
Oaks are a bit overpowered
In one of the game groups, one player chose the Oak strategy. Probably a good choice, as that table was particularly aggressive, with lots of effort invested in messing with each other’s lands. This player bought a land with a Valley Oak, not really understanding what he was getting. However, he quickly came to appreciate the Oak’s immunity from interference, and using time and patience, grew his one tree into a small grove. We had to call the game a bit early, but when we ended, he was solidly in the lead.
The other folks at that table all felt that Oaks were overpowered. We discussed the fact that even young Oaks were pretty sturdy, being immune to Fire and Invasion, and only killable via flood. One particular thing that they noted is that the leading player had used the Plant Nursery to buy a small Oak for three coins, then used his Resource Cards to grow it into a big Oak. They thought this was too easy.
That seems like a fair criticism. Young Oaks are more sturdy and valuable than young plants of other species, so it’s unfair that one should be able to buy a young Oak for the same price as a young something-else.
- More El Niño Events: During an El Niño, the cost to cause a flood is reduced. If there were more such events, there would be more opportunities to flood out small Oak trees, and their advantage would be diminished.
- Use a more complex formula for the Native Nursery, where the cost of a new plant depends on the species. Alternatively, increase the purchase cost of the Native Nursery.
- Weaken the young Oak card, so that it is more similar in gameplay value to the other young natives. Also, correspondingly reduce the cost to Invade/Propagate with old Oaks.
There should definitely be more El Niño’s. Otherwise, I’m not sure the best course. I’ll ruminate a few more days.
Fire followers may be excessively nerfed
I have not yet seen anyone successfully fire as a positive force in this game. It’s a tough strategy, and rightfully so. In real life, fire followers (e.g. Whispering Bells) are a bit fragile and persnickety. When fires come by, the fire followers pop up, and take advantage of the brief lessening of competition, but when other species begin to return, the fire followers go back into hiding.
The current game message says that fire followers are crushed by invasives. That may be a bit strong. Possible solutions:
- Give protection from invasion to big-sized fire followers.
- Upgrade fire followers so that fire causes them to Invade rather than Propagate.
- Implement a seed bank mechanic, where the small-sized fire followers (which are seeds) cannot be killed, but instead remain inactive, underneath other plant cards, until a fire.
I very much like the idea of a seed bank, but that would make the game much more complex. If there is to be a Seed Bank, it should be an optional mechanic, and part of the advanced ruleset. I’m not much excited by the other possibilities. They feel too strong, like overcompensation. For now, I’ll leave things as they are.
Fires, burn order, and table layout
This is a complex spaghetti of interconnected mechanics. We’ll start with the basics of fires and burn-order.
Consensus was that the fire/burn rules that we used in this session were decent. That’s nice. My gut remains discontent, but this may be one of those compromise situations where you know you’ve found the best option by the fact that it leaves everyone unhappy. So, for simplicity, we could leave things as they are.
Matthew was bothered by the fact that geography was mostly moot. Plants could Propagate/Invade across all lands owned by a given player, regardless of physical location (central or southern California), and table location (arrangement of game cards on the table). This bothers me too, and I’ve long hoped to put something about spatial arrangement into the advanced rules. The problem is that such rules add a level of complexity that may be daunting for new players.
For example, I like the idea of allowing players to adjust the order/layout of their land according to strategy. There might be a rule which says that, when a Plant makes a child (through either Propagate or Invade), then that child may only go on a land which is one space left or one space right of the parent. I think that Matthew just assumed this was the case, as it seemed intuitive and natural. We could also build upon this rule to allow more interaction among players, such that the leftmost plant of one player could Propagate/Invade onto the rightmost land of the player to their left. Such a mechanic does seem both more realistic and more interesting, though also more intimidating to the new player.
Unfortunately, spatial mechanics are not just complex to play, but also complex to design. Say we implemented advanced rules, and that both Propagation and Invasion were limited by table layout. In this case, child plants could only be placed one card left or right of the parent. Land cards would still be marked by geographic location (central/south) but this would have no effect on placement of children. On the other hand, Fire extent would still be determined by geographic location (central/south). Doesn’t this seem odd? Plants are limited in their movement by the way that cards are arranged on the table (but not by geography), while fires are limited in their movement by geography (but not by table layout). That’s non-intuitive, unnecessarily complex and contradictory.
If there are ever to be rules where child-placement is limited by table layout, then it seems important that Fires also respect table layout. In this case, we’d need to throw out the geography indicators (central/southern) and go way back to the idea of left/right fires. That is, fires that respect table layout, and burn either the left-half of a player’s land or the right-half of a player’s land.
I’m currently leaning in the direction of the importance of table layout. In the basic game, layout would be mostly moot. Players would be required to add new lands to the right side of their holdings, and plants could Propagate/Invade across all lands owned by a single player. In the advanced game, Players would still be required to layout their lands in a single row, but would be allowed to add new lands at any point in that row. Plants would have limited dispersal, and only be allowed to go one space left/right of the parent, though there would be continuity of landscape from one player to the next. Fires would work the same in both the basic and advanced games. Each fire would affect exactly half of the landscape (left half or right half), and lands would burn in counter-clockwise order, around the table, starting with the leftmost land of the first player.
Whew! All that still give me gut problems, but this idea feels better. I’ll try out further variations over the next few playtest sessions, and see if I can get some consensus and closure on this issue.
- A Lumber Mill: Allows killing of old Oak trees. I’m not yet convinced that this is a good idea. It takes a lot of effort to develop an old Oak, so it seems fair that they be very hard, if not impossible, to kill. At the same time, I don’t yet have a reasonable mechanic for this effect. Would it be an Event? A Resource? Hopefully, with better balancing of young Oak costs and benefits, the Oak strategy will become more fair, and Lumber Mill will become unnecessary.
- More Land Cards with special effects: At the moment, four of the fifty Land Cards have some sort of special effect. Most of these become useful only in the later game. If they’re too common, they’d confuse the early game. I also want the special effect to feel special. So they shouldn’t be too common, but I agree that, in the current version, they’re not common enough. In the next version, I’ll add a couple more. Probably as duplicates of existing cards, like having two Native Nurseries, or two Fire Stations.
- Options for Starting Flora: Add some Land Cards where there is a choice of Starting Flora, like either a Mulefat OR a Sagebrush. This sounds like a nice twist, but I’m still very concerned about complexity. Over the last few versions, I’ve steadily simplified the Land Card mechanic, and I hesitate to buck that trend. I’ll think on it some more.
- Repricing of special Land Cards: In previous playtests, folks have been unimpressed with the Land Cards that have special effects. Not true here. In fact, consensus was that these lands were all a bit cheap. I’ll work on that.