Lines of Questioning: Learning from Failed Experiments

I’ve been getting a great deal of playtest feedback on Lines of Questioning over the last few days. As always, that’s both very exciting and a source of new challenges. Feedback highlights problems, which then demand new solutions.

Previous playtesting revealed two issues with Lines of Questioning:

1. The lawyer’s tiles are handled differently from the witness’ when lines end; this makes learning the game more difficult.
2. Picking up the lawyer’s tiles sometimes feels bad, as though the player’s effort has been wasted.

My hope was that these could easily be fixed by leaving the lawyer’s tiles on the board when the lawyer’s line ends. The two types of tiles would be treated similarly, and the feed-bad moment would be gone. Further testing suggested that the change made the game easier, but that could be all right.

Unfortunately, as testing continued some dynamics that weren’t all right started to appear. “Seeding” every corner with a lawyer’s tile had become risk-free; Where once setting down lawyer tiles that the witness would not reach for some time courted disaster if all of those tiles were removed, now that work was guaranteed to stick around. No-risk progress made the game quite a bit less exciting.

What was worse, it became clear that the lawyer’s and witness’ lines could be run completely independently. With removal, players needed to use the witness’ tiles to “lock in” the lawyer’s tiles. That created a tension between separating the lines (to get each where it most needed to go) and keeping them together (to avoid losing progress). Without removal, that tension–and the decisions it created–were gone.

No-risk seeding of lawyer tiles and independent lines worked together to create a third unpleasant dynamic: the lawyer’s lines grew shorter and shorter. With no incentive to keep lines going (and the opportunity to reposition as a strong incentive to end them instead), lawyer’s lines trended toward two-tile affairs. The first would be placed next to a corner, and the second would end the line in the corner. Since the line had ended, the player could then start a new lawyer’s line adjacent to the following corner and repeat. This approach was effective while completely undermining the fun of wrangling the lawyer’s line–and “good yet unfun” is never a combination a game designer wants to see.

Since a number of playtesters had said that they’d like to see a no-removal design, I decided to keep hammering on the idea by taking out the off-topic witness answer mechanic. The idea was that without the ability to play answer tiles, the lawyer’s tiles would build up and ultimately become a hindrance unless the player brought the lines together, solving the independence problem. In addition, that version of the game would lack the two hardest rules for new players.

Unfortunately, that approach also turned out to have serious problems. First, the lawyer tiles didn’t build up enough in practice to force the lawyer’s line toward that of the witness. The lawyer and witness could still play independent games.

A second, new problem also started to crop up: it became increasingly clear that there were situations in which the lawyer was worse than useless. Once every corner with an unrevealed fact had a lawyer’s tile on top (which would never be removed), the lawyer could not contribute to scoring and just had to stay out of the way. That was interesting, after a fashion, but hardly thematic; in a game about an attorney questioning a witness, the attorney wasn’t participating in the questioning!

The “base” game, without these modifications, also has endgames in which the lawyer’s best move is to stay clear. However, the off-topic answers mechanic means that those situations end very quickly as the witness’ stack of tiles runs down. Without that mechanic the lawyer might have to keep to herself for quite a while, which made the strategy unpalatable.

Faced with these results I decided to revert the game to its original state. Removing lawyer tiles had turned out to be more important to the game than I had realized, and I was ready to get back to a version of the game with that rule in place. However, even after resetting the changes I felt the experiments had highlighted two points that should be addressed:

3. Seeing the proliferation of short lines emphasized to me how often they appear in general. A standard opening, for example, is to have both lawyer and witness begin next to a corner. The lawyer then gets into the corner and the witness follows; even if the lawyer’s line ends, the player has locked in two tiles in a corner. Quick two-tile lines of this sort are easy to set up, have little cost, and are prominent in the lawyer’s game even when removal is in effect. They’re teetering right on the edge of “good yet unfun,” and should probably be weaker.
4. While it’s thematic for the lawyer to hem the witness in, it’s not good when the lawyer sets the trap and then has nothing to do during the endgame. The lawyer needs to be more involved in the final revelations.

Having all of this playtest data is great, and seeing these issues now is going to result in a much better final product. The trick, of course, is that the playtest data doesn’t say what fixes will work. 😉 I have an idea in mind for (3) at the very least, and will keep you updated as I go.

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