Daniel Solis has previously written about the playtest hangover, that mixed feeling of weariness, disappointment and hope that comes after a playtest that didn’t go as well as you had hoped – a phenomena that I was certainly suffering this morning after Cambridge Playtest last night.
I had brought along the latest prototype of my Atlantis game, which is about the 4th iteration of the game since its inception some 2 months ago. The game is meant to be a light family style euro game (a bit lighter than Relic Runners), where players captain a submarine and its crew into the depths in the hope of recovering the fabulous lost treasures of Atlantis. The theme was where I started with the game, a mashup of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Atlantis myth and healthy dose of adventure, exploration and discovery. Admittedly, I usually am a mechanic-first designer, so this is somewhat new territory for me.
At the core of the game is a deduction minigame – each section of the 5 x 5 board contains a face down location whose identity is hidden, but whose colour (one of five possibilities) is known. Each player starts the game with a number of map cards which show the hiding place of a particular treasure. The place is defined by the intersection of two locations on the board, Forbidden Desert style (with one location defining the row and the other, the column, where the treasure can be found). One of the things players can do as they move around the board is use their actions to look at the face down locations. Once they are sure where the treasure is, they go there and then reveal the two locations that point to the treasure.
This playtest was a mixed bag for me (and thanks to Jen, Andrew and Phil for putting up with my uncertainty!). On one hand, they really enjoyed looking for the treasures, and were even quite disappointed when we finished the game early as it meant they wouldn’t be able to find their last missing one. This is great, and was certainly a feeling I was hoping to evoke in the game. Additionally, they agree that this mechanic fits the theme particularly well, and it is a popular theme to begin with.
Unfortunately to me, the game is mechanically broken. The search for the locations is inherently lucky, and there is not much strategy to the game. There are tantalising glimpses of chances for deductive reasoning (as you can sometimes work out where a treasure is without exactly knowing where both locations are) – but the game doesn’t let you use this, as you are required to reveal the exact locations that point to the treasure, requiring you to hunt down both of them. Furthermore, over successive iterations I had added more things to do in the game, with more treasures and tiles to pick up in the locations other than just looking at the face down location. Unfortunately, the meat of the game is still in the hunt, and last night I think I was the only one to engage with these other opportunities. Everyone else was just caught up with their maps.
So my feelings with the game are a bit all over the place. I know there is a game in there, as players were enjoying themselves last night, and this is very encouraging. I also know that the absolute heart of the game is this deductive search, and the discovery that comes with it. But I also know that the current mechanics of the game need to change, to make the game a bit more strategic and less luck-based. So even though I am a bit despondent this morning, at least I have a firm direction to head in – even if I don’t exactly know how to get there!