Session Report: Games Laboratory Incubator Meetup 0.1

I’ve been interested in board game design from a young age, starting with statistic sheets for robots I drew in my notebooks and on to trying to design my own tactical combat card game when I was 16. After getting into the board game hobby, I wanted to design my own worker placement game and actually managed to get a simple prototype together and played it twice back in 2009. Since then, I’ve kept notes of my game design ideas and I’ve even written about some of them on this site. Still, I’ve never taken a design past the initial concept stage.

This year, I made a conscious decision to really try to make things. A lot of that thinking came out on the Consuming and Creating episode of the podcast. I put together a very basic prototype for a game idea I’ve been toying with for a while and managed to get a couple of plays in. I also started looking into board game design groups online, which also coincided with my interest in talking to other creators on the podcast. Games Laboratory had previously tried to start an Incubator meetup for local game designers to get their prototypes out some time in late 2013, but when I turned up for one there didn’t seem to be anything going on and it looked like it didn’t really catch on. Sometime in August, I started doing some board game stuff for the Games Laboratory guys I mentioned it in an email and lo and behold they had plans to bring it back.

I was pretty excited about the relaunch of the Incubator meetup as I would really like to have a local game design community to plug in to, and I also really like the space that Games Laboratory have set up. There was a Facebook group set up, and initial response to the Incubator meetup was very encouraging.

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It’s interesting to me to see how different the response has been to the Incubator relaunch. Granted, it may have had a great response the first time around, but I just wasn’t around to see it. It’s been really exciting to see board games get more mainstream interest and there’s been a noticeable growth in the board game meetups and events in 2014. There’s more interest in the boardgaming hobby, which leads to a higher incidence of potential board game designers. I think the launch of Kickstarter for Australia/New Zealand at the end of 2013, coupled with some successful Australian board game Kickstarters, has also motivated would-be designers to get more serious about designing as there is now an alternate avenue to getting their game made. In addition, Shayne (who joined Games Laboratory early in 2014) has been a big driver behind the board game events and it really helps to have someone focusing on this side of the hobby.

All this came to a head on September 12 when a group of aspiring board game designers converged on Alchemist’s Refuge (which is the bar below Games Laboratory) for some playtesting, discussion and drinks. I met up with Adam, Michelle and Vong for some dinner before the meetup, which meant we arrived a little late to the proceedings. There were at least 10-12 other people already there, and it looked like some games were just starting up. Vong managed to squeeze into one game, but it looked like there wasn’t any space for the other 3 of us so we grabbed some drinks and discussed some ideas for a game that we wanted to make together.

Evan had previously joked about making a deck building game about actually building a deck when he saw my copy of Worker Placement. We came up with some quick ideas back then, but hadn’t really sat down to work it out. Sitting together at the table while other prototypes were being played, we decided to get some design work done. We discussed our design goals and threw out some ideas of how to implement deck building mechanics to fulfill those goals which I noted down. It was pretty exciting to finally lay down some groundwork for the game, and we stumbled onto a concept that we thought was worth exploring further which was using double-faced cards to model the transformation of raw materials into finished components of the deck. We actually ended up putting a quick prototype together this past weekend which highlighted some issues but I’m not yet sure we should completely abandon the concept. More likely we’ll file this particular mechanic away for a different game.

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After some fruitful discussion, we noticed the other game groups finishing up and after some more chatting and mingling we jumped into a playtest of El Luchador Fantastico Grande by Al Caynes. Al runs another geeky website and podcast called Hittin’ Crits and I had seen him talk about his game design online, so I was pretty keen to give it a shot. I really like the luchador theme that he’s gone with, and the art for it looks fantastic. El Luchador Fantastico Grande is a dice-driven combat card game where you play luchadors trying to take each other out in an all out brawl. It uses the Yahtzee mechanic of a set number of rolls and re-rolls before you lock in your dice result, and you then use the dice results to either damage other luchadors or heal yourself. There’s also a ‘King of the Hill’ or ‘Hot Potato’ aspect in the form of a Championship Belt that is passed around when you hit other luchadors and gives you a damage bonus while prohibiting healing.

The dice rolling and Championship Belt aspects of the game gave it a very “King of Tokyo” feel. It’s pretty easy to learn and the game is pretty fun. However, there were times when you really couldn’t do much on your turn if the dice didn’t roll your way, which is why I suggested looking into some compensation mechanic to make up for it. In King of Tokyo, you usually get a mix of 4 relevant results: damage, healing, energy, and points. The only time you ever get a true null result (not counting card effects) in King of Toyo is when you roll 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3 which is quite rare. Other times you might not get the result you want (which may feel close enough to null) but you at least get something out of it. The dice system and options in El Luchador Fantastico Grande currently results in a higher incidence of null results than in King of Tokyo, so while it is fun there is a higher chance of a wasted turn. The turns go by fast enough that it’s not a dealbreaker for the game, but I did bring it up to Al as an area of improvement. I believe Al is in the process of getting the game ready for Kickstarter, and it is a pretty fun little game, so I wish him all the best with it.

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On the subject of “wasted turns”, I don’t think they are an inherently bad thing though they do increase the chance for player frustration. I’m fine with them if they come about due to the decisions of the players or if you provide ways for the player to still feel invested even if nothing happens. For example, in Dominion you could have some wasted turns due to the cost and power level distribution of the Kingdom cards, but you could make decisions and build your deck in such a way that minimises the impact so I’m fine with that. Say, if you decided to build a deck that could consistently churn out 4 coins every turn, versus one that fluctuated between 1 and 8 coins every other turn. In contrast, if you had randomly started with a setup that had no 2 or 5-cost Kingdom cards it would be the bad kind of wasted turn since it arbitrarily disadvantaged anyone who started with a 2-5 split (technically you’d still be able to buy Copper, Estate, Silver or Duchy so it’s not a true null scenario).

After El Luchador Fantastico Grande, I managed to get another playtest session for the game I’ve been working on. I don’t have a name for it yet but the folder for it is currently named “Deck Builder Heroes”. I’ve actually written about the genesis of this game previously on the site. The main idea of the game is to use the deck building mechanic to model character customisation and progression in a tactical combat scenario. It’s been pretty tricky so far, since you basically have to balance the design of 3 key components: the core card play system, the design of the characters, and the design of the game scenarios. One of my goals for the game is to have it be scenario-agnostic, that is the system and characters can be easily ported over to different game modes. For now, I’ve started with a team-based King of the Hill style scenario but I want to eventually be able to play a full co-op adventure mode or capture the flag or a MOBA using the same core engine.

The prototype I currently have is a very basic one, which I put together to test the core concept of the game. I have 4 characters with some simple powers and level-up bonuses battling it out on a small 5 by 5 grid. There are 4 types of cards that make up each character’s deck: Offense, Defence, Mobility and Special cards. The cards are used to activate and boost different powers, and when you run out of cards in the deck to draw you get a level up bonus before you reshuffle and continue drawing. It’s still incredibly rough and there’s a whole lot of work to be done, but I think the prototype gets across the core idea of the game quite well.

I managed to rope in 3 other players and we played a team game. It had been quite a while since I had taught the game, so I was struggling to explain the game in a clear and coherent manner since I kept forgetting rules here and there. To be perfectly honest, I ran a pretty bad playtest since I didn’t take any notes or record any feedback. The general feel I got from the players was that the game wasn’t bad, but I also didn’t really get any enthusiasm for the mechanics or glean any insights into improving the game. In some ways, this is actually a worse result than getting criticism since it’s hard to know how to improve the game from here. I got some comments on how to better balance the character powers, so that is something that I will work on. However, I still think the core idea is worth continuing though there are still a lot of improvements that could be made to the engine to meet the design goals that I’ve set. The turn order, spatial relevance and movement rules are still key issues that I need to work on, and once I’m happy with the engine I’ll take a deeper look into the character and game mode balance.

While we were playtesting, I did notice a lot of lively discussion going on, feedback being given and advice being traded on game designs. The atmosphere was very friendly and helpful, and people really were interested in helping each other out on their game designs. After the playtest, I also managed to get into a short discussion on setting design goals for games so there was no shortage of interesting discussion going on. Regardless of the results of my own playtest, I found the meetup very enjoyable and it’s really encouraging to see so many budding game designers getting together to help each other out. The next meeting is on 10 October 2014 (tomorrow!) and I am eagerly looking forward to another good session of playtesting and discussion.

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P.S. – Sorry Shayne, I stole your photos because I didn’t take any :(

3 responses to “Session Report: Games Laboratory Incubator Meetup 0.1

  1. Nice write up! I’m going to try and find time to do for our next event, or I might ask for a playtest report from each of the creators. We’ve got one guy who has does a consistent blog, and I’m kind of semi-consistent at the moment.

  2. Pingback: Session Report: Incubator Meetup – May 2015 | Action Points!·

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