Saturday 7 February was the first full day of UnPub 5, the unpublished game prototype playtesting convention that has grown dramatically in the last four years. I split a Tag Table with Tony Miller, and by mutual agreement, I took the table first on Saturday. I was glad to do so because I really wanted Lesley Louder to get a chance to play "East India Company" before she had to leave the convention early. When Lesley's husband Darrell, the convention director, heard that I was setting up a game of "EIC," he had Richard Launius (Arkham Horror, Elder Sign) join us. Rob Weaver made our fourth.
Naturally, I was thrilled to have Richard Launius play my game, and I was eager to get his feedback. He read through my rules as we waited for Lesley and Rob to join us, and he surprised me by saying that he hates writing rules and never writes them until he absolutely has to - usually when the game is done and the publisher asks for them. My design style is exactly the opposite. I have to write the rules to keep my thinking organized. Invariably I discover flaws in my concept of my own game when I try to draft rules and uncover inconsistencies.
The playtest went very well. I got some good suggestions from all three players, including the addition of a turn-record track that indicated insurance payouts (instead of the payout table based on tile count) and some general improvements to the map. Now, although Richard freely admitted that "EIC" was not his type of game, he had some helpful insights. I had introduced a new, simpler rule for tariff houses, but he felt that they needed clarification - specifically that tariffs are paid from the bank, not from other players.
Overall, Richard thought that the game was good, it was fun, it made sense - but that it wasn't publishable. By that, he meant that a publisher wouldn't buy it because it wasn't distinctive enough. For the big publishers like Asmodee or Rio Grande - and he emphasized that I should always design with the big publishers in mind - they have their own in-house designers, and if I bring them something that they could have designed themselves, then they won't buy it from me. I need to bring them something unique, with a hook that gets their attention, that they couldn't have done in-house.
He gave me some specific recommendations about adding historical context, adding event-driven market price changes, and adding impasses to impede player actions. He also thought that the big ships were overpowered, having both speed and capacity, and ought to be slower.
I am not at all discouraged by his comments. Rather, I'm inspired to take "EIC" up a notch and really make it sharp, really give it some interest. I don't think I'll implement all of his recommendations, because I think some of them depart from my overarching vision of the game, but I like the idea of bringing it up a level and really making it something that catches a publisher's interest.
Aaron Honsowetz, designer of "Post Position," stopped by, and I chatted briefly with him about Richard's comments before going on a short break. When I returned, Aaron was already explaining the game to another group of four interested players - Tyler, Chrissie, Johann, and Rachel. (I had already met Johann at the Designers Dinner the night before.) So I took over the explanation and launched into another playtest. This second game also went well and completed in just 75 minutes, comfortably under my target time.
They had some interesting ideas about opening up more markets in the colonies. The recommendation I really liked is giving players only half the value of ships at the end of the game, rather than full credit. That way they will have to think of ships as assets only if they anticipate making back enough money to justify the investment. Otherwise, buying a ship represents very little capital risk. Another interesting idea was to add one or more "Pirate" tiles to the tile bag, so that pirates would come up at truly random points during the game. I might experiment with that idea.
So in my four-hour Saturday table slot I completed two very helpful playtests, including some invaluable notes from a highly successful professional designer. That feedback was exactly what I'd come to UnPub to find.