Tag Archives: playtesting

A Thousand Miles: north to Sequioa, then south to Julian

This past week, I went on two long trips. The first was up north, to Sequoia, where I met up with Jon Keeley, a highly-respected fire ecologist, to seek his support for F&F. The second trip was in the other direction, down to the town of Julian, where I helped run an F&F based outreach program for some of the 5th and 6th graders at the Julian Elementary School. Going up to Sequoia, down to Julian, and back, was just a bit under a thousand miles of driving. Much as I like my car, I’m a bit tired of it, though I won’t complain, as both trips were very rewarding.

Over the past few months, I’d traded several emails with Jon Keeley, talking about outreach, fire ecology, and F&F. He’s in high demand, but at the same time, he’s very passionate about ecology, and had already been looking into doing outreach through gaming. Last Monday, I drove up to meet in person, and we talked for a bit. We went over the rules of the game, discussed the ways in which they were intended to model real world processes, then played a few rounds of F&F. He had several good comments. The best idea was to introduce mutualisms. I’ve long toyed with the idea of an Animal Expansion to F&F, and been mulling over what sorts of new mechanics I could introduce, and animal/plant mutualistic relationships are a great idea (e.g. Yucca Moth and Yucca).

At the end of the conversation, Jon said he’d love to see F&F get into schools, and be willing to put his name behind it – with the caveat that he was speaking for himself, and not as a representative of any institution – which is what I’d hoped would happen. He’s not well known to the general public, but he’s highly respected among professional botanists, ecologists, and conservationists. For this reason, his endorsement will be a big help in future conversations with those sorts of professional groups. Thanks Jon!

And of course, while I was up there, I took the afternoon off to go for a hike. Specifically, I walked the foothill trail up to Marble Falls, which was spectacular. So it was a doubly rewarding trip.

Two days later, I drove down to Julian. I met up with the education coordinator from Volcan Mountain (an environmental nonprofit), and we spent an hour talking about the game, and outlining a plan for the class. We wanted to make sure that there were two people who were fully up on F&F, so that we could help things to go along as smoothly as possible. We then went into the class and put our plan into action. I took about fifteen minutes to introduce the game, explain the rules, talk them through the setup, and then through the first turn. I’d hoped to walk them through the first several turns, to set a real strong foundation, but the kids were chomping at the bit, so I just set them loose.

It was remarkably chaotic. Fun and interesting chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Lots of different kids were confused about different parts of the game. Yet they were all determined and excited to go forward, confusion-be-darned. The teacher and I circulated among the six groups, doing what we could to keep them somewhat on track. After about forty-five minutes, we called a halt to things, and turned to the discussion part of the program.

I asked some questions about different species, and their response to fire.  Several kids had picked up isolated facts, and I was able to fit some of those together to talk about (and illustrate) the way that unnatural fire regimes could negatively affect diversity. I then asked for questions and comments. Unlike other groups, most of these kids were curious about the workings of the game. The knew they’d missed important bits, and wanted to understand it better. Several said straight out that they enjoyed the game, which was a nice surprise. But I actually see their rules questions as a bigger complement.

The element of fun and play had drawn them into the game, and they wanted to learn more. While I do want to spread knowledge and promote understanding, knowledge or understanding without passion or interest are moot. On the other hand, excitement and personal interest can motivate people to learn, and more importantly, to act. Something along the lines of the old saying about importance of, “teaching a man to fish.”

In the end, this experience showed that F&F is within the reach of this younger audience, but that younger kids will need additional help to get started. A fifteen-minute explanation of rules is not enough. In fact, in the post-game discussion, one kid actually spoke up to say that. Which speaks well of his self-awareness. For F&F to be successful with kids younger than 12, you need at least one teacher per group. This need not be a classroom teacher, it could be a parent, an older friend, or an older sibling. But given that help, I think that these younger kids would get a big kick out of F&F, and have some seriously fun times.

Multitasking

Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken small steps forward on a wide range of fronts. Nothing momentous, but rather a nice broad advance.

Last weekend, I ran a playtesting event for Fire and Flora at Orccon 2013. It was a curious experience, as I went to this con with a different mindset than in the past. I realized that it is very much a con for gamers, with almost all games at the con being designed first and foremost as games. And while I had a good time, there were very few families, kids, or teachers. This is despite the fact that all games, even those that are primarily games, are educational.

In the end, four people signed up for the playtest, which was all that I needed, so I went ahead with the event, and it turned out well. One player commented that it was not the most fun game she’d ever played, but that it certainly was fun, and a good balance between gaming and ecology. That was essentially the balance I was aiming for, and so I feel good about the game. It needs a little more balancing, and a lot more artwork, but I feel confident that this is a solidly good idea, and that it’s now ready to shop around among wider audiences.

I’ve begun serious work on a second “game,” one that is more of a puzzle than a game, which is why I put the word “game” in quotation marks. This is an idea that I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s almost entirely visual, and is therefore accessible to a much wider age range. So it should be a good complement to Fire and Flora. In combination, they cover most of the serious-gamer demographic, from elementary school kids to grown-up geeks. I’m going to be mysterious about it for another month or so.

With two games in the works, I need a business umbrella, and that starts with a name. Unfortunately, lots of the good ones are already taken. “Mindfull” is claimed by the Mindfull Corporation. “Brain Feast” is used in a variety of ways, including this Minecraft mod/map. “Full Course” is a Canadian Rapper, and while I could claim “Full Course Games”, there would still be potential for unfortunate confusion. The Here Corporation is a business consulting firm. “Legitimate games” is unclaimed, but would be lost in the vast internet discussion over DRM and legitimate vs. pirated games. So it appears that I’ll have to continue the brainstorming, and think even further outside the box. (Yes, that’s taken too, by OTB)

GHCHS

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:

  1. Each player must lay out their land cards in one horizontal row.
  2. When you buy a new land, that land must be placed on the right-hand end of your lands.
  3. 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.

Deciders

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).

Assumptions

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.

Possible solutions:

  • 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.

Other suggestions

  • 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.

Playtesting Beta 11

Last night I brought Beta 11 to my local gaming group, and recruited several vocal playtesters. This was an unusually lengthy and verbose playtesting session, and all the better for it. We had a lot of discussion during the game, and a good half-hour long talk at the end. We found several small problems (e.g. typos and symbology), and I’ll be noting those in the Changelog. We also spent a long time discussing three broader issues: openings, pacing, and fires. The are tough problems, deserving of deeper thought. The following is what we came up with last night, plus some additional thoughts that I had this morning.

Openings

The smallest of the three big issues is openings. In Beta 11, as in each of the last several iterations, it is relatively rare to see open lands (lands that could support plants, but which are empty of plants). In part, this is intentional, reflecting both good ecological principles, and smart gameplay.

In the real world, when doing restoration, it’s generally a bad idea to leave open plots of land, as those open plots will be quickly be filled by something, and that something often turns out to be undesirable. The current rules do a good job of modeling the forces that make this happen, with the result that players intentionally avoid leaving openings. So the lack of openings during the game is in part a result of good game design.

Still, if there are too few openings, then it does take some fun out of the game. One of the new features in Beta 11, flooding, was designed to improve this situation. By playing several water resources at once, players can cause floods that wash away existing plants and create openings in the landscape. In last night’s game, there were two floods. So the flood mechanic did indeed improve the situation, but not quite enough.

Possible further improvements:

  • Dire events: Suppose an event said, “All players must choose one plant that they own, and kill it”. This would immediately create Nplayers openings in the landscape. Such a powerful event seems a bit drastic, but I’ll try it in the next iteration.
  • More El Niño events: It is easier to cause floods during an El Niño, and both of the floods in last night game happened during El Niño’s. So simply increasing the frequency of these events would increase the number of openings.
  • Reduce the base cost of floods: At the moment, it costs three water to cause a flood. That base cost is reduced by one during an El Niño, and increased by one during a La Niña. Reducing the base cost of floods would drastically increase the number of floods in the game. In particular, players that drew  El Niño events would be greatly advantaged, as they would have pretty good power to damage opponents. I think this would be too much.

On pacing

The game starts too slow and ends too fast. A couple versions ago, to address the issue of slow starting, I had increased the amount of starting cash. This let each player immediately buy 2-3 cheap lands or one expensive land. However, the first-turn land grab depopulates the pool of available lands, such that the 3rd and 4th players feel gypped. It also leads to an uneven pace of play. Following the initial land grab, it is then 2-3 turns before players have enough cash to buy their next land. So the first few turns consist of an initial grab, then a pause, then a more steady ramping up. From a gut perspective, it would feel better if it there was a steady ramping up from turn one.

The easy way round this would be to limit land-buying, such that players could only buy one land per turn. I’ve tried hard to avoid external rules, things that were clearly artifacts of gaming rather than intuitively reasonable analogs of the real system. However, a one-land-per-turn rule would solve several problems in one go. It would force players to spread their starting cash across the first 2-3 turns, thereby avoiding the grab-pause stutter-step. It would also prevent later players from feeling gypped.

The other half of the pacing issue is the overly fast endgame. The nature of this game (and many other resource/expansion type games) leads to exponential growth. In rounds 8-9, most players have ridiculously large income. Most players draw as many resources in turn 9 as they did in turns 1-3 combined, and so later turns represent much bigger steps than earlier turns. This means the end comes fast. Often, it comes through money. Where the lead player will, in their last turn, increase their score by 2-3 points, with most of that coming from the purchase of lands.

Last night, this was exactly what happened. The winner played an almost all economic game, buying many cheap/weedy lands, and holding a low score through the early and middle parts of the game. Then, in the last few turns, he used his vast wealth to buy high-point lands, and propagate a few of the plants from those lands. I’ve tried hard to weaken this strategy, and made respectable progress, as evidenced by the fact that it was a close game. Still, he won without having to think much about ecology.

If he’d been unable to buy two lands in that last turn, there would have been more opportunity for the other players to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in his weedy landscape. He might still have won, but the game would have been more even. So it appears that the one-land-per-turn rule could help with the ending problem as well.

On Fire

Fire is one of the key pieces of this game. It’s also the most complicated part of this game, and despite a lot of thought, it still doesn’t work right. The basic problem is one of sequence. Every time there is a fire, multiple lands (and plants) are burned. As a practical matter, you cannot update all lands/plants at the same time. Instead you must do so one-by-one, in sequence. Then, because of the fact that each type of plant has its own personality, it turns out that the order in which you update the burned lands affects the outcome. Different choices of order/sequence produce different results. Thus, for this mechanic to work, you need a clear (and preferably simple) way to decide the order in which lands/plants are burned by fire.

Options:

  • Player’s choice: The California/region die determines which lands burn. Then, each player may decide the order in which to update their burned lands.
    • This results in the best possible outcome, which (may) mean that fires are too weak.
    • For this to produce reasonable results, it requires a tweak to the rules on Invasion. Specifically, that invasive plants may only invade lands occupied by native plants. Otherwise, you end up with invasive plants invading lands occupied by other invasive plants, which weakens the mechanic of invasive plants to near irrelevance.
    • Any choice-type option takes time and understanding. It requires players to understand the consequences of each possible sequence, and that understanding requires both knowledge of the game and time for thought. That’s a fine thing for experienced gamers or players, but it creates a problem for new players. It’s an entry barrier.
  • Opponent’s choice: The California/region die determines which lands burn. The opponents of a given player then decide the order in which that player’s lands burn.
    • This results in extremely damaging outcomes, perhaps making Fire Events too powerful and disruptive.
    • As with the Player’s Choice option, this option takes time and understanding, and causes unwelcome discomfort among new players.
    • Collaboration among opponents requires significant discussion time, so much that this option takes even more time to implement than the Player’s Choice option.
  • Layout left-to-right: Add a rule to require players to lay out their lands in a single row. The California/region die determines which lands burn, and the affected lands burn in sequence from left to right.
    • If there are no additional rules about layout, then this ends up as just another way of doing Player’s Choice, as players can (at least somewhat) reorder their lands during gameplay.
    • If you add one more rule, that new lands must be added to the right side of one’s holdings, then players have little control over layout, and the left-to-right ordering becomes semi-random.
  • Random-by-d20: Each fire burns a fixed number of lands of each player. The d20 determines which lands burn, and the order in which they burn. For example, say that a fire burns 3 lands of each player. The first player will roll the d20. Starting at the their leftmost land, this player will count from left to right until they reach the number shown on the die. If they reach the end of their holdings, then they wrap around to the start (eeney-meenie-miney-moe style). The land that their finger ends up on is burned. The first player repeats the process twice more, so that there have been three rolls of the d20, and three lands have burned. Once the first player has finished, they pass the d20 to the next player, who repeats the same process.
    • Fires that burn a fixed number of lands are regressive. They cause greater harm to players with fewer lands, increase the point spread, and produce less competitive games. I don’t see a simple way to make the d20 mechanism work with a variable number of lands.
  • Random by individual land / left-to-right: Players must lay out their lands in a single row. When buying a new land, that land must be added to the right side of their holdings. When there is a fire, each player goes through each of their lands, from left to right, and makes a roll for each land. If the roll indicates fire, that land burns. If the roll indicates no fire, that land does not burn.
    • On the down side, this method requires extra rules regarding layout, and requires extra time during fire events, as there are many more rolls.
    • On the up side, it is clear. Both the set of lands that burn, and the order in which they burn, are clearly defined. Additionally, there is relatively little analysis overhead. Players must understand the mechanism, which does require additional rules, but they have minimal ability to control burn order, and therefore minimal need to ponder the effects of their decision on burn order.
    • At the moment, this is the best idea that I can come up with. I’ll introduce it during next week’s playtesting session, and see how it goes.

 

Post-classroom thoughts

Last week was the first real-live kid playtest (see photos on Facebook). At the end of each class, the kids were given a homework assignment to write a paragraph about their thoughts on the game. I have the paragraphs from two of the three sections, and this morning, I sat down to read them.

There were a variety of comments, but there was one thing that nearly every single kid agreed on: the game was confusing at first, but once you got the hang of it, it was pretty darn fun. That was my overall assessment as well. I was a little surprised that the second section reported the same level of initial confusion as the first section. I thought that I’d learned a lot from the first section, had given a much better introductory explanation to the second, and that the improved explanation had helped the second section to get the hang of things much faster.

Other interesting thoughts:

  • Most kids enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game, particularly the ability to mess with their opponent’s plans. Though there was also one group which felt the game was too competitive.
  • Several asked for a more exciting Event Deck. I had actually been afraid the Event Deck was too exciting, that players might think that this was an Event driven game, and feel a discouraging lack of control. To counter this, I purposely included a modest bunch of fluff events, which were just cards with pretty pictures that had no effect on the gameplay. It seems I was wrong.
  • Several kids commented on the potential messiness of the game layout, and suggested developing some sort of board. Several turns in, when each player had 3-4 lands, a plant on each land, and a small collection of Resource Cards, the tables did look pretty messy. On the other hand, there was one group of four girls who had everything very neatly laid out. So it is certainly possible to have an organized table, but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect kids to exert the effort to make that happen, particularly when they’re excited about something.
  • There were suggestions of a couple types of new cards. A “Trash” card, which would paralyze a plant, and remain on the plant until it was removed by a Labor Resource. An insect card, which would be damaging to plants.
  • Two kids suggested more complexity: more kinds of plants, more types of resources. It’s awesome that they both picked up on the game so fast, but I think they are relatively unusual in this. I didn’t ask, but I got the feeling that both were experienced card gamers. I was hoping that previous gaming experience would carry over to this game, and it seems that it does. However, I’d like the game to appeal to a relatively large audience, including inexperienced gamers, and so I feel that any changes must be in the direction of less complexity.

Likely changes:

  • Tiered rule sets.I had intended to have just two sets of rules: Standard and Advanced. While I’ve had some optional advanced rules in mind for some time, I have not yet tried to play with them. What I could do is to develop a simpler set of “Basic” rules. How might this happen? The Plant, Resource, and Event mechanics are tightly interwoven, and central to the ecological messages of the game. However, the Land mechanic is somewhat separate, and less ecological. Land Cards are a way to ration resources, and also to allow for a sense of growth and expansion. A Basic game might specify a fixed set of Land Cards for each player, or perhaps work with no Land Cards at all. I’ll think on this.
  • A more exciting Event Deck. One change would be to include more Fire Events, but to modify them so that each affects only a portion (half?) of the lands. This is the way that it had worked in previous versions. The problem is that you need a way to quickly and easily describe which set of lands are affected by each fire, and I haven’t yet come up with a mechanism that I’m comfortable with. One kid suggested labeling each land with a symbol. Fires would then affect, for example, all lands of the green-square type. This would, again, increase complexity, but it would probably be the minimum increase necessary to distinguish classes of lands. I could classify lands by geographic region, and that would be mildly realistic and educational.
  • While I like the idea of a layout aid, I’m very concerned about cost. I know that Pokemon has a layout aid. When you buy a starter deck, you get a folded-up paper layout, which you can then unfold, and use as a guide for where to place the parts of the game. However, Pokemon is a two-player game, and players cannot have more than three Pokemon in play at any time. Fire and Flora works with up to four players, and naturally uses more table space, so it would require a correspondingly larger layout, with correspondingly higher cost.
  • Misc smaller changes. But I’ll put those in the ToDo part of the Changelog, rather than go into them here.

Serious playtesting

Last week, I recruited several serious gamers to playtest v09. Overall, it went well. The game started out quite slowly, and there were some balance issues, but once everyone had several plants and several lands, and the resources were coming in, it went fairly smoothly. I was also quite surprised to see that all four of these folks chose a fairly conservative gameplay strategy. Based on this, I made a few modest changes intended to speed up the first few turns, and also to make it harder to turtle-up. Aside from that, I got good feedback on a host of details, all of which will be a big help in making this a better game.

That playtesting was in preparation for this week. A very exciting week indeed, as I’d been invited to bring this game to three sections of 7th grade science at my own old high school. So I needed to make sure there were no glaring errors in v09, before bringing it out to them.

While I’ve done a fair bit of gaming with family and friends, this was the first time I’ve been able to play with younger folks. It was fun and unexpected. Well, I’m sure an experienced classroom teacher would have accurate expectations, but I’m only an occasional teacher.

Yesterday was our first in-class test. I gave a quick verbal introduction to the game, essentially a mini-lecture on the rules, then set them loose. It was more chaotic than I’d expected. With a fair bit of help, they were all able to figure out the rules, and had a good time, but it did take some coaching. My introduction was clearly inadequate. At the end of the period, I led a short discussion about the ecological intent of the game, and I was happy to find that they mostly had picked up on the central theme of balance and fire.

Based on feedback from their teacher, I modified my introduction. Today, when I met with the second section of this class, I gave them a slower, more hands-on introduction. I had them take specific cards, and we used those cards as examples during my explanation of the rules. After this, I walked the class, all together, through the game setup process (e.g. shuffling cards, laying out a set of starting lands, doling out starting coins, etc). Lastly, I talked them through the first turn, and then I set them loose to play. This worked much better. There were still questions, but most of the groups understood most of the rules, and mostly played the game as intended. And I think that having less confusion led to more fun. Again, at the end, I led them through a short discussion, and asked them for their thoughts on the game.

In two days, on Thursday morning, I’ll visit the third section. With any luck, that should turn out well too.

Playtesting of β07

Two of my friends came over on Saturday to try out the new version. We had a very long, thoughtful, and productive play-test session. It lasted four hours. Given that this is intended to be a 60-90 minute game, four hours is a long time.

Oops

We found a bunch of typos, and a number of spots where important information was missing. This was embarrassing. I knew there were flaws in the game, but I thought I they were all in the gameplay. In my defense, I did an almost total graphical makeover between v6 and v7. It turns out that, in all that fuss, it was pretty easy to overlook some important details.

Burn-order

We spent a while talking about burn-order. When fire burns a particular land, you get different results depending on the order in which the plants burn. I was a fan of the “top to bottom” rule. I had thought that, whenever a land is bought or new plants are planted, the owner should arrange their plants to their taste. The order of the plants on the table would then determine the order in which they burn during a fire. This rule allowed players to make the optimal choice, but required them to think ahead. It’s also slightly realistic, since real fires tend to burn in a more-or-less straight line. However, after some discussion, I was persuaded that “owner’s choice” is a better option. It’s simpler to explain, and easier for new players to handle. When fire burns a given land, either because of a Fire Event or a Prescribed Fire, the owner of the land may choose the order in which the plants burn. It happens that allowing players to pick the optimal order also results in the intuitively correct result, so this rule has the nice feature of both appearing generous and being fair.

The Miser Strategy

We also spent a while talking about the Miser Strategy. This works as follows: On the first turn, the miser upgrades their headquarters so that they are collecting the maximum number of coins per turn for the remainder of the game. The miser then sits back and does nothing. This was an unfortunately good defensive strategy. Most negative Event Cards do not directly affect players, but instead affect either plants, or the lands on which those plants grow. Similarly, players have little ability to affect each other directly, and mostly compete by causing change to opponent’s plants, or the lands on which they grow. Since the Miser has no plants, and no lands which might grow plants, the Miser is immune to nearly all negative effects. Yet, with each passing turn, the Miser collects more coins. Eventually, after 9-15 turns, the Miser has enough coins to buy victory in a single round.

This is not a good strategy, but in some situations, it does work. Since this strategy is boring, unfun to the Miser, unfun for the other players, and biology-free, I feel that it ought to be a bad strategy, which would never work. My friends pointed out that the reason this strategy works is that the game allows players to collect coins without risk. If coin production was tied to plants or to other lands (not Headquarters), then in order to increase their income, players would have to buy lands, own plants, and accept risk. Conversely, there are currently several lands which do not provide any ongoing benefit to the player. The value of these lands comes mostly from the points that they give to the owner, and so there is little benefit to owning these lands before the final round. The solution is to 1) reduce the income produced by headquarters to just one coin per turn 2) tweak the other lands so that most of them produce one coin per turn 3) make sure that all lands provide some sort of on-going benefit of ownership.

Scoring, and the meaning of diversity

The current scoring system is simple and straightforward, but it is ecologically mediocre. The victory points are known as as “diversity points”. While this sounds good, placing an ecologically pleasing emphasis on the value and importance of diversity, it is moderately misleading. Consider the situation where one player owns six individuals of one common native species, and a second player player owns one individual of each of six different common species. Since all common natives are worth one point, both players have the same number of points, even though the second player has a much more diverse set of plants.

Really, either the victory points ought to be named something else, or the scoring ought to be more intuitively related to diversity. I’d considered the phrase “habitat points”, but that isn’t any better. In this game, rare plants are worth more points than common plants, but in the real world, the habitat provided by the rare plants is generally no better or worse than the habitat provided by common plants.

For now, what I’ll do is add a set of optional advanced rules. One of these will be an advanced scoring system in which each player’s score is the number of stars owned by the player plus the number of types of native species owned by the player. This advanced scoring system offers a solid reward to players for having a more diverse landscape, and makes the name “diversity points” more appropriate.

M pointed out that the limited set of plant cards subtly favors players with diverse native plant holdings. This happens because, when all cards of a given species are in play, that species may no longer propagate or invade. If a player has just a few native species, and all cards of those species are in play, then that player loses the ability to cause his/her natives to propagate or invade. Meanwhile, other players may still propagate or invade any species for which all cards are not in play. Thus, players with more diverse sets of native species will have more options.

Given M’s observation about diversity, my observation that the Species Pool was always rather large, and my concerns about printing cost, I will reduce the number of extra plant cards in the next version of the game.

Adjacency and dispersal

In real life, plants have limited dispersal range. It is easier and more likely for a plant to spread to a neighboring area than a distant one. It is true that seeds may be carried from place to place by wind, water, and animals, and that these vectors may carry seeds across “great” distances, but “great” is a relative term. All of these vectors have some maximum dispersal distance, and so distance is always a factor.

By contrast, in this game, distance is not a factor. When a parent plant produces a child, that child may be planted on any space on any land which is owned by the owner of the parent plant. For players who are interested in more biological accuracy, or more complex gameplay, we add a new optional advanced rule. This rule states that plants may only spread to adjacent lands. If all adjacent lands are full (e.g. no empty spaces on neighboring lands, or all neighboring plants immune to invasion) then the parent plant may not propagate or invade.

Slow start

J noted that there was good action in the second half of the game, but that it started slowly. I agree. This might be a good thing, as it gives new players a bit of time to see how things work, before the action takes hold. However, it’s also a bit boring, which is a turn-off.

At the moment, players begin the game with enough coins to buy one of the cheaper lands. If players began with more money, perhaps enough to buy two of the cheaper lands, then this would lead to a quicker start and a quicker finish. I’ll add this to the rules as an option, something like a “head-start” vs. a “normal-start.”