Sunday, June 14, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 2

This is part 2 of my Origins 2015 retrospective. You can read part 1 here. This part will summarize my experiences demoing Clockwork Wars for Eagle-Gryphon at the con.

I demoed Clockwork Wars 2-6 times per day from Wednesday through Sunday, for a total of around 16 complete games. We had two demo copies available and (barely) enough space to have two 4-player games running concurrently. I tried to vary the maps and Discovery cards throughout the con - partially for playtesting, partially just to keep myself entertained.

The general pattern was like this: some people had previously signed up to play CW, and some people dropped by with generic tokens to see if there were any spots available. I think we were able to accommodate most people who wanted to play. I had players choose their race, and then started in on 1) general intro to the game (genre, weight, playtime, theme), 2) how to win, and 3) specific rules. In total, this probably took around 20 minutes (30 if people asked lots of questions). Rick had encouraged me to get my training spiel to 10 minutes or less, but I just don't think that's possible. Demo sessions were scheduled to last 2 hours and most people were able to finish their games in that time period (so, 20 min of rules, 100 min of play).

My approach to teaching was to orient them to their player aid (which turned out absolutely fantastic, design-wise), and then use that to march them through a single turn. What aspects of the game seemed to trip people up? First, understanding that you don't really move your troops around in CW. Once you deploy units to a territory, they usually stay there. Second, how combat is resolved. Specifically, reinforcement orders, battle resolution, and turn order. Understanding this system usually required experiencing a few battles in-game.

One nice thing about teaching games at cons is that pretty much everyone you run into has played a lot of board games, so they're 1) prepared to sit patiently and learn rules, and 2) capable of grokking systems quickly because of their prior gaming experience. I was often stunned at how quickly certain players figured out the game and started playing strategically. This wasn't everyone: most people played sub-optimally and were simply exploring the game systems without worrying to much about winning. But I remember a few people who honed in on certain strategies, formulated plans, and carried them out successfully. That was gratifying to see.

One individual, in particular, who I remember from one of my earliest sessions figured out the power of Espionage very quickly. He pursued a heavy court-espionage strategy, supported by conservative (but efficient) map expansion. This allowed him to stay under his opponents' radar for a large majority of the game, and he walked away with a solid win. Impressive. That group of four, by the way, was a wonderful group of people. They were super-friendly and asked me lots of questions about the design and development process during the game. They also really enjoyed the game and brought back several of their friends throughout the con to try out Clockwork Wars. It was nice for me to have such a positive demo experience like that early on.

What did I learn about balance, rules, and potential future errata? Well, I continue to be confident that nothing is broken in Clockwork Wars. There are no infinite loops, and I doubt there are any super-dominant strategies. However, given all the unique cards and effects in the game, it's not surprising that a few tricky cases come up periodically.

For example, a couple people asked whether the Operative could use her assassinate ability against a enemy soldier that was paired with an Engineer (the answer is no, the soldier needs to be alone). Also, after the Operative assassinates during her reinforcement stage, it often surprised people that if the targeted opponent came later in turn order, he could reinforce that battle to take out the Operative. Fortunately, this is a confusion that came up during playtesting and so the rulebook does explicitly cover this scenario.

The Spymaster action, Counter-Intel, is the one rule that is not well-explained in the manual. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is 100% my fault and I wish I could change the wording now to prevent the inevitable confusions that will arise.

With regards to the races, the easiest race to play does appear to be the Mongrels. Their Unique Unit, the Hunter, is powerful and relatively easy to understand. The Troglodytes are also easy to grasp, and people intuitively understand the idea of a combat-weak, research-focused unit. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the Purebreeds' Operative. Some people refused to deploy her at all, fearing her loss early in the game. Some, realizing she would be safe in the Court, simply deployed her there and never moved her. Very few used her like I do: aggressively, periodically placing her into perilous situations.

The Rhinochs, somewhat surprisingly, were the race that people most struggled to understand. The idea that the Crashers can only be deployed into enemy-controlled territory was often missed or misunderstood. If I wasn't paying attention, I'd often see a Crasher simply sitting on the map, defending someone's city (which is not possible - the Crasher acts as a kamikaze unit). I don't think the Rhinochs are underpowered, but after this Origins experience, I suspect that people will find it hardest to understand how best to use these units - and at what point in the game.

I am relieved to say that my previous worry that Espionage cards may be overpowered does not seem to be true. Indeed, players consistently were thrilled with the potent impact of these cards. A single card can significantly alter a turn, but just one card won't win you the game. I saw Poisoned Waters and Insurrection used to great effect. Treason might be under-powered compared to the rest of the deck, but I need to wait and see what player feedback is.

In terms of the Generals, people were drawn towards the Steamtank. The idea of a mobile uber-unit was appealing. The Steamtank is difficult to use effectively, but a couple people figured out that using Gambit can get it to your front lines quickly, and that's a necessity if you've waited until the middle or late-game to research it.  The least used General, I think, was the Guardian - which is perhaps not surprising, since he's defensive and not particularly sexy.

Many, many discoveries were used, and from my perspective, nothing seemed under or over-powered (except possibly Infallibility, a late age Religion discovery). I saw one player use Alchemy and Martyrdom to crank out VP's and win the game. I saw Cataclysm researched, placed on the map, and then used by different players as ownership switched hands over several turns. Generally speaking, people didn't save IP well (to purchase discoveries as soon as they became available), since they were often tempted by what they could afford at the moment. If there's one Discovery that dominated a game, it was probably Colossus. This card lets you destroy Early Age discoveries in play for their points, and the player who researched it got 11 VP's from this effect.

Component wise, I have no complaints. The tiles turned out great, and no one had issues reading the ID tags. The cards are beautiful and textured, and the player aids fantastic. The wooden pieces sit on the map well, but the battlefield is nicely spiced up by the presence of some plastic minis (UU's and Generals). Certainly, if I was buying this game, I'd make sure to spend a little more on getting the plastic UU's - they are so much cooler than the wooden pieces we included by default. The plastic insert that Rick designed is awesome. It is designed to hold all basegame and expansion components securely in one box. This is not an insert that people will be tossing.

Overall, I really thought this was an enormously successful convention for me and Clockwork Wars. The vast majority of the groups that I taught the game to thoroughly enjoyed it, and several went on to pre-order the game after their experience. The game plays well, it plays fast, and it challenges and delights. I'm certainly very proud of how it all came together. Now, I just have to wait a couple more weeks before KS copies ship and the game starts popping up in stores.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 1

Last week I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, OH, from Wednesday to Sunday. It was my first game convention experience, made all the more special because I spent the majority of my time in the Eagle-Gryphon demo booth teaching people how to play Clockwork Wars. It was fantastic, exhausting, and periodically overwhelming. In two posts, I'll record my thoughts on the experience. This first one will focus on everything NOT related to Clockwork Wars. My second one will predominantly discuss my experience demo-ing CW and new insights about balance and play.

First off, my hotel choice was a good one. My brother and I booked a room at the Renaissance Downtown. It was around a 15 minute walk to the convention center in a nice neighborhood. The room was great: spacious, clean, and relatively cheap. I'd certainly stay there again.

As for meals, I didn't treat myself particularly well the first couple days. After fairly light breakfasts, I ended up either skipping lunch or eating crappy convention food. By the third day, I figured out my schedule a bit better and reserved time to get out of the convention center and eat in North Market. In case you were wondering, it's every bit as good as everyone says it is. And it's only a 5 minute walk away.

I met a lot of really excellent people. This was my first time meeting all the Eagle-Gryphon folks face-to-face - people I've been collaborating with for (literally) years over email. I can't speak highly enough about Rick and Joanne Soued, who run Eagle-Gryphon. They are generous, kind, intelligent, interesting people. Rick is a huge reason why Clockwork Wars turned out as nice as it did. I also finally met Alex, his son, who was my primary developer on CW for nearly 2 years. He was warm and welcoming. It was also a pleasure to meet Rick Schrand, VP of sales and marketing at Eagle. He was affable, extroverted and witty.

In terms of other designers, I didn't get to meet and chat with as many as I had hoped. At an Eagle-Gryphon dinner, I met TC Petty III, designer of the VivaJava games and, more recently, Xenon Profiteer. It was interesting asking him about his goal of becoming a full-time game designer and his long-term strategy. I also met Matt Riddle, designer of Fleet, Eggs & Empires, and most recently, Floating Market. I played a copy of Floating Market in the Eagle demo booth and had a lot of fun. It's a clever, unique design, and I walked away respecting Matt as a designer even more than I had previously. But I wish I had had a chance to sit down and play games with some designers, and have leisurely chats about the design process, the industry, etc.

I spent a large amount of time working alongside a group of fantastic volunteers - the Eagle "wingmen" - who teach and demo games throughout the con. Every single one was welcoming and competent. It was a great team. Our demo area generally cranked: our most popular games were probably Age of Discovery, Francis Drake, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and Clockwork Wars. The production values of everything Eagle makes are truly astounding.

Finally, I was (embarrassingly) thrilled to meet several prominent personalities in the board gaming world. I briefly met Tom Vasel, as a prelude to a 10 min preview they did of Clockwork Wars. The interview itself was a bit stressful but I hope that once it's posted, it gets more people to check out the game. I got a chance to meet and briefly talk with Rodney Smith of Watch It Played fame. To my delight, he's interested in doing an instructional video for Clockwork Wars. It may or may not pan out, but my fingers are crossed. Finally, I met Marco Arnaudo, one of my favorite reviewers, and passed along a copy of CW for him to play and review. He has since posted a very positive review of the game, which is immensely gratifying.

I didn't expect to work and demo as much as I did. My plan going in was to demo Clockwork Wars for 1-2 "shifts" per day (each shift was around 3 hours), and then spend the rest of my time walking around with my brother trying out games. However, it became clear to me pretty quickly that no one else in the demo booth was really qualified to teach my game. I taught it to a couple other wingmen right away, and even got to play a few turns with them, but no one had read the rulebook beforehand, and it's a pretty dense game to pick up after a single partial play. I also realized (and Rick reiterated this) that people were going to have a much more fun, positive experience learning the game from me than anyone else. They would learn all the rules correctly, have the right person around to answer questions that came up, and get the "pleasure" of rubbing elbows with the designer. I also discovered that it was a huge rush to watch people play and enjoy the game. Why would I deny myself of that opportunity?

So I ended up spending the majority of each day (from around 9am to 10pm) in the Eagle demo booth, prepping and demo-ing Clockwork Wars. I'll talk more about that in my next entry. But I wasn't there the whole time - every day I took some time to walk around the convention center with my brother, checking out booths and games when I got a chance. Here are some of the experiences I recall:

I've been curious about the Conflict of Heroes system for a while now, and I thought my brother would be interested as well (since he's an old-school grognard). We wandered over to Academy Games and the gentleman there was kind enough to give the two of us a quick rules explanation and even let us play through a few turns of a single scenario. My honest opinion is that it's perhaps too "old school" for me. It feels like you're playing a streamlined ASL - but not a modern design. I-go, you-go, hex-based, lots of modifiers, range checking, dice-rolling, etc. Not my bag. But I will say that seeing both Fief and Freedom: the Underground Railroad up close was impressive. Academy publish such unique and beautiful games.

Inspired by its hugely successful Kickstarter, I signed up for a demo session of Posthuman. Our "instructor" was late, but once he showed up he gave us a very enthusiastic introduction to the game. A group of 5 of us played this post-apocalyptic, adventure-style game with prototype components. I wrote up my thoughts on BGG here. In short, I wasn't impressed. The downtime was horrendous, and it felt very odd to be exploring a world without a common map (everyone constructs their own). This one really made me wonder, for the 100th time, about Kickstarter and why certain games take off and others don't. Posthuman has an interesting (if slightly overplayed) theme, one cool mechanic (the idea of scars leading to mutation), and a very deep role-playing element, much like Arkham/Eldritch Horror. But otherwise, I don't precisely understand what drew people to the design.

On a more positive note, my brother and I got to try out the DC deck-building game: Forever Evil. Although this system gets some flak for being quite simple, my brother and I are big fans. I *like* that it's simple and somewhat mindless - and I love the presentation. Forever Evil impressed me. They've added some wrinkles to the design that make it slightly more complex and tie in with the "playing a villain" theme. Plus, taking down the Flash with Bane is incredibly satisfying. My brother bought a copy immediately after we played.

There was a huge demo of Flick 'em Up, an Old West themed dexterity game. After 5 minutes of rules explanation, I got to play with 3 other bystanders and we immediately started laughing. This one is a lot of fun, and I love how casual it is. The only impediment I see here is having a big enough table! Also, constantly looking for bullets that fly off the edge. I don't know if I'll buy it, but I'm tempted - it would be the first dexterity game in my collection.

What did I buy at the convention? Not much, but that's my style. I'm pretty reserved when it comes to game purchases. I bought Rhino Hero for my daughter and VivaJava: the Coffee Game: the Dice Game for myself. I'm excited to try the latter out with my game group, as several of us are coffee snobs, and I think this looks like a great dice-game. On that note, the Dice Hate Me booth was super-busy, and I think they sold out of VivaJava as well as Brew Crafters, another design that intrigues me.

SO, not as much game-playing as I expected! But part of that was becoming familiar with the system. If I go back again (which I'd love to), I suspect I'll be much more efficient about my gaming. Generally speaking, while there were some odd organizational elements to Origins, I found it to be a very pleasant convention. It seemed busy but not too busy. You could get demos relatively easily, but it helped to know the schedule and where to go. Unfortunately, it was often confusing trying to figure out where specifically a game was being demoed. This is a con that would greatly benefit from an App to help search and create an itinerary. I don't understand why every convention doesn't do this.

Next entry: my experience demo-ing Clockwork Wars.