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.

 

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