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Hexploration - Designing Something Deeper

First solo test

I've been bouncing this idea around in my head for a while now. Months at this point, I'm really not sure how many. It started with a desire to make a proper "board game" - meaning one with an actual board. While driving home one evening I had an idea for a hex-based tile game with a bit of a twist: I like tile-laying games but the one thing I have never really enjoyed was the randomness of the draw. At the same time, those games seem to lack enough complexity to facilitate having a hand of tiles. So, I wanted something a little more complex than a standard tile laying game. Using hexagons seemed like a natural fit because they allow for more board complexity and scoring options without over-complicating the draw one, play one simplicity of tile-laying.

Now, usually, my creation process doesn't take this long. With most games, I just mull it over in my mind for a few days (or in some cases, minutes) before I start doing actual work. This game sat up there for what seemed like forever. Why? Well, because it's a board game with some complex elements! That's quite unusual for me. In all the years I've been designing games, only 2 have ever included a proper board and one of those "boards" was only 4 spaces. This is also the first game I've designed without cards... and the first to contain a proper economic engine. I really needed to think this thing through to be sure I wanted to commit time to it. There are a great many elements to balance and I'm dabbling in territory that is altogether new to me as a designer. Sure, I have played many games that have these elements, but I have not included many of these elements in my designs. Introducing new elements into my design tool set is a difficult trial and error process for me. I would love to say that I'm brilliant enough to just hack out a resource and economic engine quickly and it be perfect. The truth, however, is that those two things hinge on each other and must exist in balanced conjunction. This balancing process has proven to be difficult for me.

Mock testing on the computer

I did a few on-paper runs of the game. Basically, I printed some hex paper and colored squares so I could get an idea if the main engine of the game was going to work. I mocked up tiles in Inkscape and played at work using a spreadsheet to track money. After I was satisfied, I ordered some blank chipboard hexes to mock up my first prototype. I had absolutely no theme in mind from the beginning, so I colored these hexes with five different colors of sharpie. This may also be new territory for me... designing without theme. Usually I have a theme in mind very early in the thinking process and that theme drives much of the development. This time, however, I had a desire to make a specific GAME and figured the theme would come along.

Prototype parts

This process took a very long time. The blank tiles sat in my prototype box for a while before I actually worked on them. The rules sat in my head for a very long time before I wrote them. This game has taken a long time to make it to the table... and for a reason: I'm not confident in myself. I have struggled with confidence since early childhood and it has caused me to abandon too many projects unfinished. Some people call it laziness. Some, procrastination. Others call it fear. What I know of it, however, is that I too often give up on things along the way because I feel like the final product will not meet my vision. It is almost like a stutter, but a stutter in doing things, not saying things.

I have tried many times to fight this problem and I have always lost. Some things get done, obviously, but many more projects just sit. Something changed this time around, however... I asked for help. I did not specifically ask for people to help me on this project, I just asked for people to believe in me. I started writing about my game projects and putting it out there. Good or bad. I wrote about the disasters as well as the triumphs equally... and people responded. To my surprise, people are interested in reading about this stuff and better yet, they are interested in engaging me about it. Suddenly I'm not just blinding flailing in the dark and hoping that something comes of it. I am engaging with others, some of which have much greater creative talents than I, and I am using that momentum to drive myself. It's been an awesome experience and I owe each and every person that has shared with me over the past few months a huge debt of gratitude.

First test with game group

So, this project would not die. I had to see this to the table and I did! Guess what... it was excruciating. The play session was not excruciating because the game was horrible, but rather because the game was not what I had imagined it to be. It was not what I had tested by myself and there were many fringe rules I simply missed. It was excruciating because, as so many times before, I felt inadequate. I had an idea, I saw it through to an initial prototype and we were playing it. While playing it, I was done with the idea and ready to shelve it. There were so many things I didn't think of that it became a burden. I played on, however, and at some point something changed. First, a theme was suggested. Then a few rule ideas were talked about and suddenly, it made more sense. This may have been one of the most magical test sessions I have ever had. In fact, most of my first test sessions end without a complete play through of the game. I suggested we could stop, but everyone wanted to continue! There was excitement!

What is this game? Well, the theme is now about mining gemstones. Each player represents a different group of miners working the same mine. The player controls two miners that must either mine or move each turn. To mine, a tile is drawn from a bag and added to the current area that the miner is working. The bag contains 25 tiles in each of five different colors (gemstones.) If the tile played matches the color of the current area, money is gained. There are bonuses for playing next to an opponents area as well as closing in another players area. Movement is area based and the miners can move one space per turn. They also have a mine cart. The mine cart is how a miner claims an area they are working in. When the miner leaves an area, they can leave the cart (to hold claim on the area) or take it with them to continue working the mine. If the miner is working on an area that contains another miners cart, no money is gained from tiles placed.

Okay, so at this point, it's pretty meh. Right? Just another tile laying area-control game. Where I wanted to mix things up is that you don't have to keep the tile that you draw. I wanted the player to be able to control the randomness a bit. So, when you draw a tile, you don't have to keep it. You can pay the bank to draw again. As many times as you can afford. Tiles discarded are added to your market. Other players may now buy these tiles from you instead of drawing from the bag. Price is set by a sliding scale based on the number of tiles left in the bag. Money is the victory condition, so suddenly there is all sorts of stuff going on. You now have to decide how to spend your money throughout the game because you ultimately want to make the most, but at the same time, you can't make the most if your tile placements are not the best they can be.

After the first test session, it was obvious that things needed to change. It was also obvious that the group was enthusiastic about it which helped me overcome my fear of defeat. This might be the most intricate and complex design I have worked on to this point and really, it's pretty simple. The money system seems broke to me although the players didn't think so. I would like more meaningful decisions involving money because as it stands, you can't make much off of a single tile placement, so there is no incentive to spend much either. I'm going to change it up a bit and try a few different market ideas I have instead of just a sliding scale.

So, there are changes coming. The good news, however, is that I am making changes and not just shelving the game! I have overcome the confidence issues with this game and I am willing to put more effort into it. I'm honestly excited for the next playtest session and I have my testers to thank for that. They are a wonderful group of insightful people that aren't afraid to tell me when and where I've missed the mark and offer up suggestions to make it better. I'm certain that this game can come to fruition... it's just going to take a lot of work to get there.

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On to Part 2 >>

- July 20, 2012