She didn’t mean to. Grandma played to win and when we played for money, which as all the time, she played to win. Oh, she’d give me my starting cash. She’d fund me on the rare occasions when I ran out of 10 öre coins. It wasn’t like she tried to fleece me, but she did play to win. And she lost.
For years I thought that I was simply better at playing cards than grandma. I was convinced that I had a gift. But when I look back on what was going on I realize that this wasn’t so.
See, grandma’s favorite game was rummy. And we’d play for 10 öre per card. If you had six cards in your hand when your opponent played their last cards then you lost 60 öre. Grandma always complained that I didn’t play my cards but kept them in hand until I could play every card at once. She could never add any cards to my melds and I would win.
Because I had broken rummy.
Why Stacking Rewards Doesn’t Work
In grandma’s version rummy was played with two decks and a draw hand of 14 cards. But if you lost without having played a single meld (for you non-rummy types, a meld is when you put down a set or run of cards on the table, making your hand smaller) you only paid one krona (100 öre). So we had three things that worked in my favor:
- I would be able to add cards to grandma’s melds without her being able to add cards to mine.
- I would have more flexibility in whether to play my cards as sets or run, making my card draws more efficient.
- In the unlikely event that I lost I was given a free bonus – not only didn’t I have to pay for the first two advantage but I’d actually get a 40 öre reward, having to pay only 1 krona för 14 cards – I was doubly rewarded.
My gaming style was simply superior to grandma’s. Grandma’s rummy was broken and I, quite accidentally, found out how. Grandma never did, and kept playing using her style with all her friends, none of whom would play any other way.
My point is this: when you design, find your internal 8 year old. Break your game.
I suck at breaking my games. I love them too much. I can see the potential, the great game that is there if only people would play it exactly the way I envision that it should be played. I want to create a linear, static experience for my players.
Go write a movie script, ya dofus! This isn’t how games work!
Games are meant to be won. That’s why we play them, to challenge us and our friends to a competition where everybody strives to win. Try playing with someone who doesn’t care or plays a token game and you’ll have all the fun of a shell-less snail at a crow reunion.
So what to do when you can’t break your own games?
At first I tried to just playtest, playtest and playtest more. Solo. Didn’t work. Oh, sure, I would find the small problems, the ones that really didn’t matter because, hello!, the whole game was broken. And I didn’t see it because it played OK for me.
I’ve got a very static playing style: if it’s possible to build I build. If it’s possible to develop I develop. If I can get away with turtling I turtle. I like going for the sure thing rather than taking risks where others can disrupt my plans. Which isn’t the way other’s play. So I formulated heuristics for solo playtesting and created a set of ideal (in the psychological sense, not the philosophical) player archetypes (big thanks to Kevin B. Smith for pointing out the last two over at BGG):
- The Arse. This is the player who likes to hurt others, the very opposite of me. Very conflict oriented. If it’s possible to attack the Arse will attack. If it’s possible to mess with other players the Arse will mess with them. The Arse will go for the weaker player, going for the maximum hurt rather than trying to beat on the leader. Yeah, nice guy.
- The Coward. Turtler galore. This is the guy who won’t attack even if the enemy’s is sleeping with his pants down and his head up his butt. The Coward doesn’t care. It’s obviously a trap; too risky. The Coward will just huddle in his corner building his defenses, not risking anything, anytime (I’ve had designs where the Coward would win, resoundingly – bad game design).
- The Builder. This is pretty much me. The guy who’ll tech Every. Single. Time. This is the guy who’ll build the resource engine on the expense of everything else. Which works great against the Coward but less so against the Arse. Which is fine, since we’re pitting extremes against each other. And in the instances where the Builder wins over the Arse we know that the building strategy works a lot better than the messing strategy. Time to rebalance.
- Shorty. Mr. short-sighted is short-sighted, always going for the easiest gain in any situation. Strategy? Who needs it. If it’s there and it’s cheap, grab it!
- Mr. Plan. The plan is pretty hard to play. This is the player I have the most trouble with, being rather tactical and short sighted myself. When I play a Mr. Plan I set out a set of objectives at the start of the playtest and write them down. Then I check every action against those objectives. If they don’t take Mr. Plan closer to his objectives I don’t do them, no matter how tempting.
- The Grudge. Grudge is a grudge player. This is the player who starts out as another type and, once provoked, will relentlessly go for revenge. Effectively Grudge is a Coward/Builder/Mr. Plan or Short who in mid game turns into an Arse against one other, specific player. If the Grudge wins, or if the object of the Grudge’s hate loses badly then the game needs some checks and balances.
- The Specialist. The Specialist focuses on a single aspect of the game to the exclusion of all else. It can be combat, it can be massing gold, it can be VP racing. Whichever it is, if there’s a way to break the game with it the Specialist will do it.
- Random Rick. Random Rick plays randomly. Take a look at all the actions available and roll a die. That’s it. Random play. If Random Rick wins your deep strategy game then there’s some major flaw you haven’t seen. Works best with simpler games. Note that Random Rick can be a way to test for age dependency in a game. If Random Rick can win then the game is better suited to be played by small kids.
I’ve found that starting with one playtest without ideals followed by a playtest where half the players are ideals usually breaks my games in such a way that I know why it’s broken. The first playtest tells me if what I’m trying to achieve is even achievable, that is, with myself and myself only, would the game deliver the type of experience I want it to? And if it does, will it still deliver that experience when there are extreme players present?
Sometime it does. And then I know that the game is ready for public playtests. And I bring in The Game Breaker. But that’s a story for a different time.
How about you, how do you make your solo playtests effective?