The time between Origins and GenCon seemed to disappear. After a few weeks of intense development, I finalized what I considered to be a solid prototype and sent off the files to thegamecrafter.com for printing. I ordered POD not because I didn’t want to show up with another hand-made copy… but the game had grown quite large and I was feeling lazy! I needed to cut and sleeve 216 cards and that takes time! I was hoping to test some before I left for the show, but our game nights got cancelled for one reason or another and I had to go in blind with a new version of the game. I trusted myself to make good decisions… whoops.
The Night Before
There’s nothing quite like waiting until the last minute to playtest. I guess it didn’t really matter when I tested at GenCon… I had no capacity to make changes… but I wanted to at least know what I was talking about before I went into the meeting. If something was wrong, I wanted to be prepared and honestly, there were quite a few cards that I was unsure of.
So, sometime around midnight, I decided to fire up a game with AJ Porfirio and his friend Chase. I explained the rules and got us going rather quickly. It became apparent pretty fast that a few buildings were underpowered… and a few were overpowered. There were some mechanics that needed tweaked. Overall, though, the test was wildly successful. They both praised the game and the after-play meta discussion went on for a while with both players offering up some solid feedback. I left that test mentally prepared for the meeting. I now knew what was flawed and what wasn’t and I was confident I could talk my way around the problems.
As the meeting approached, I started to become nervous. There were flaws. A few cards didn’t work out quite the way I wanted them and I needed to re-balance things to make it fit the new format. I was hoping to have another solid little core game like I handed off at Origins… and I failed. What if they didn’t like the work I’d done and were disappointed in the flaws? Would they send me away even after I told them that this was a rough prototype?
When I showed up, I explained that what I had was a rough and while he was welcome to take it, I didn’t quite feel comfortable with it. I went through all the changes… how I worked on his village idea and tweaked it… how I used his ships idea exactly as he envisioned… how I added the Folc deck to make up on the turns you don’t need to roll goods… how I added a few events and such to the main deck to spice up raiding a bit.
He absolutely loved all of it.
The conversation quickly turned into discussions of company meetings and how this game would fit in at certain points over the next few months. We set up a target goal of Thanksgiving time to get him the next prototype. This worked out perfectly for me because I was expecting another 6 weeks or so of development before I was happy. Setting the deadline another 6 weeks beyond that gives me the chance to get it right and order another prototype… except… he actually told me not to do that. Seriously. He just wants me to send him the files and his art department can make him up a set. This way, he doesn’t have to send a physical copy around to his various test groups, he can just send out files and have them each make their own copy. I like this guy.
At the end of the meeting we discussed something I’ve never discussed with a publisher: component cost. We started discussing target price points based on complexity and perceived value. He started rattling off numbers like current MSRP and production costs based on the components I presented. We started discussing cards vs punchboard tokens. In the end, we were a few dollars over what our target MSRP would be for the game. He asked me for the next version to start considering minimums. Start thinking about what components can become tokens instead of decks of cards. Try to reduce the quantity of printed boards. Start thinking about what I believe would be minimums card counts for the two decks.
I must admit, peeking behind the curtain like this is pretty darn neat. I’ve talked to publishers about unit costs before, but never about component cost and designing against it. I always assumed that was their thing… that’s the stuff they do behind closed doors after contracts are signed. I never imagined I’d be asked to start tuning my game against production costs… and, I’m not going to lie… it was difficult to be a pessimist about this game once the discussion had gotten this far!
Well, I still have a few months to test and tune! This is good. I’m satisfied with the core system, I’m now just balancing cards. I’d like to find a mix of about 18 or so buildings that make sense mechanically. I’m happy with the way the ships, Blessings, and Folc work. I may mess around with a few other Folc ideas for that deck, but nothing major. Right now, my key focus is making sure that none of the buildings are so underpowered that they never get bought. I can balance things with point value, but I don’t like doing that. I’d rather have more useful options than just upping point values on cards that aren’t performing.
I hope to attend Protospiel Milwaukee again at the end of September. I’ve designated that weekend as the “Let’s Finish This” weekend. If I can fine tune the game there, I’m confident that I can deliver a solid prototype in late October. I doubt I’ll be writing much more about the game until then as I don’t expect to have many huge breakthroughs but who knows? Maybe something crazy will happen and I decide to go against a huge publishers recommendations!