I usually divide playtests into two categories: general and focused. General playtests are exactly what they sound like; everyone plays the game, and then gives feedback on issues that arose. Focused playtests are for answering a specific question about the game: does this work, is that clear, what if we did it thusly?
This playtest was a focused one, with the question being are the written rules working? It’s difficult to get enough distance from what I know about the game to be sure that I’m not filling in rules issues with my own knowledge. I wanted to make sure that the written rules are correct.
To that end, I played this solo round following the rules as written, step by step. Doing so revealed some minor issues. I also lost, but surely that just means the game is a worthy challenge. 😉
Starting with the setup, I realized that the rules referenced yellow squares which existed in a previous version of the terrain. In addition, the rules directed that players should put down terrain beginning with the “first” shaded area, without defining which one comes first. (It doesn’t actually matter what order the shaded areas get their terrain, but I didn’t want a new player to be confused.) I updated the rules to reflect the current look of the terrain and to specify that the first piece of terrain goes in the upper-left area.
After setup the board had a good spread of terrain, with the right side being a bit harder to get through. The searchers were, for the most part, close to the player tokens and facing toward them. That arrangement of searchers always makes for a tense early game, since the searchers are on top of the players right away.
On turn one the players mostly just shifted on the starting line, trying to get into good positions to deal with the oncoming searchers. At the end of the turn another problem reared its head: the turn tracker was being moved both at the start of the search phase and at the end of the sneak phase, such that at the end of turn one the turn track was actually on turn three!
It was clear that one of the two times when the turn marker moved had to go. However, picking which one it should be was a bit tricky. I put the turn counting at the end of the sneak phase because I wanted players who took too long to hit the “game over” space at the end of turn 10. Otherwise, the players would start a turn 11 that would not actually be played out, which seemed awkward. On the other hand, I felt that moving the turn marker at the beginning of the turn was easier to remember.
This kind of question–one where there are good reasons to go both ways–is ripe for the tools of legal analysis. Looking back at our rules, the only one that seemed like it might be relevant is that “the decisions must be interesting.” While the rule didn’t answer the question directly, it at least reminded me of what the priority was. I needed to make the choice that would support making interesting decisions.
The awkwardness of players losing on turn 10.5 was unfortunate. However, it didn’t particularly affect the game. Players would get 10 chances whether the end-of-game condition was met at the end of the 10th or before the 11th. I didn’t want players to feel like they’d been cheated out of a turn, but most players would probably be more focused on the 10 turns they got than on the one turn they didn’t. Indeed, I imagine that the vast majority of players will just learn it as “after 10 turns you lose,” without worrying about the technicalities.
By contrast, forgetting to move the turn marker is a serious problem. OtND is balanced around the players having 10 turns. If they get 11 or 9 because they lose track, the game could end up being significantly easier or basically unwinnable. Either way, the decisions become a lot less interesting; they’re either trivial because it’s an easy victory or irrelevant because the players can’t reach their goal no matter what they do.
Framed in that way, the answer was clear: players should move the turn tracker at the beginning of the turn, when they’re less likely to forget to do it. I removed the contradictory line in the rules, and changed the turn tracker slightly to make turn 1 work smoothly (the turn tracker now begins on a “start” line so that when the tracker moves at the beginning of turn 1 it’s correctly moving to 1).
Sadly for our heroes, they were discovered on turn 3 when I failed to account for a possible right turn by one of the searchers. However, before that point there had been some careful positioning and a bit of tricking a searcher, so on the whole I was pleased with how the game went.
Looking over this playtest, what particularly strikes me is the number of unstated design rules I followed. I cared about an awkward rule–but why? There’s no rule that says awkwardness is bad. I wanted the rules to reflect the game correctly, but that’s not a stated design rule either. My goal was to make OtND better, and I think this playtest did, but it’s also highlighted for me how many “postulates” are operating in the background as I work on the game. On Friday I’ll start trying to bring some of them to the forefront.
The updated files are: