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There but for the grace of God go we...

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IngredientX
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Disclaimer: I'm about to discuss a game called "Time Control" by Anthony Thompson. You may have heard of this game. It's a real-time game with a cool time travel theme. As for the gameplay... well, I'll get to that below.

I just wanted to start by saying that I'm not out to flame Mr. Thompson or his game. In fact, I respect the fact that he set out to produce his own game by his own means, which takes tremendous ambition in and of itself (not to mention time and money), as opposed to just talking about it (like me), which only requires a mouth. :) Also, the design he released is very unusual, ambitious, and original. So, I will try to be as respectful as possible.

A few months ago, I was at a small game convention in western New Jersey. The host of the con (another game designer) told me that he’d received a game called Time Control from a new game company, and they wanted him to try it out. He asked if I would play with him. I agreed, interested in seeing how this “indie” game would play.

So we cracked open the box, started opening the components, and hit into the rules. And there came the first problem.

There are several important concepts in the game: Time Agents, which are counters that you and your opponents control; Time Waves, which are ripples in the fabric of time that travel from the past into the future, wreaking havoc; and Fate cards, which help decide the outcome of conflicts.

The rulebook is about sixteen pages long. For some reason, it defined these concepts at the end of the manual! This means it launches straight into critical game concepts, discussing how they relate with one another, without giving a thought as to whether the reader knows what they really are.

Learning the rules to a game from the manual can be surprisingly tricky. But when the manual isn’t properly written, it can have a devastating effect on the enjoyment of the game, before the first piece is even played! I never had an appreciation of just how much this applied before I had to slog through the manual, trying to figure out what flipping a Time Wave was, trying to remember that the Scientist agent had special powers flipping a Time Wave, trying to retain that Time Waves cause Problems if they make it to the Present. The above was impossible, considering that I didn’t even know what a Time Wave was, or how it was supposed to be represented on the board.

To his credit, Mr. Thompson has made a newly revised rulebook available on his company’s web site. If you wind up with this game scheduled for your game night, do not approach it without downloading those rules first.

After about an hour of puzzling through the rules, we took our first halting steps into the game. It’s a real-time game, where players move their agents from their board to another player’s board. Once there, they engage opposing agents and try to create disruptive Time Waves. We played for about twenty minutes more, and then I gave up.

I found the game mechanic incredibly dull. When two agents are in a conflict, you and your opponent select one of the time control tokens you have in front of you. There are 26 for each player, numbered 1-25, with one numbered Fate. To resolve a conflict, you reveal the tokens you selected. Highest number wins (with the Fate token meaning that the conflict gets resolved in the Fate deck, but that’s another story). So you’ll want to save your highest tokens for your most important conflicts. Also, whoever loses the duel can ask for a re-duel… and if the other player loses, he can ask for a re-duel.

I just can’t get into this mechanic. I’m all for keeping games from being randomly decided, but 25 gradations of decisions are a lot, and it wasn’t satisfying to me. There’s nothing that “feels” like time-travel, just choosing lots of numbers.

No less than three reviewers have covered Time Control on BoardGameGeek, and they were just as unimpressed as I was. Tom Vasel wrote…

Quote:
The first problem that presented itself was that nobody wanted to move out of their own time zones. Nobody was willing to take that first step, because they weren’t sure what they should do, and didn’t want to leave their own time zones undefended. Finally, eveverbody got moving, and we discovered the second, much bigger problem. There are too many stinkin’ time duels. Almost always, players clash over what action happens first – and that produces a time duel, with the obligatory re-duels. We felt like we dueled, and dueled, and dueled, and dueled. And that was only the first round! It was very hard to get ANYTHING accomplished, and the game went very slowly. It was also very easy for players to stop the time waves that were advancing up their own time zones, so the game really stretched out. Once a player gets a problem, all they have to do is discard an agent. Yes, that’s bad in the long run, but in the short run, it makes the game last for a very long, boring time. This game is a classic example of an idea that sounds better on paper than it did in practice.

Another review excerpt, this from Greg Schloesser…

Quote:
I can't help but wonder just how extensive the play-testing and subsequent development for this game was. Surely, if this game was sent out for play-testing to just a few of the established game groups in the U.S., most, if not all of the problems I mention would have been identified and hopefully corrected. I have a strong suspicion that this was not done and that the game was playtested and developed by a handful of folks with little or no outside input. That's just a suspicion, mind you, but the game surely suffers from a lack of thorough outside review and testing. That is truly a shame, since the designer clearly had some clever ideas, but they just don't work properly in the game's current form.

I agree fully with the above reviews; as cool as the idea for the game is, the mechanic was dull and uninspiring, and it felt like it had been playtested by friends and family members who couldn’t bring themselves to criticize the game.

Back to my very first points for a second: I’m not looking to flame the game, and I don’t mean to point my finger and laugh. Indeed, Time Control’s poor reception is no laughing matter, considering the money Mr. Thompson must have poured into its production. As a hopeful game designer, I can only think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

So what do we make of this? I think we should all take a few lessons from this.

1) Playtesting can hurt. Seeing your baby torn apart in a session because no one likes it can be one of the most awful experiences you will ever go through.

A tangent: I was a creative writing major in college, and I joined one of the student-run fiction magazines. I submitted one of my first stories, and at a meeting, I nervously sat around with the various upperclassmen, reviewing the various submissions. We were to read each story, then write “Yes” or “No” below the ending text on the last page, with our initials and any comments.

I saw a very respected senior pick up my story – my baby, the fruit of my endeavors – read the first page fully, flip through the second, third, and fourth pages, jump to the end, and write PATHETIC on the last page. That was my introduction to the editorial process. :)

Having said this, it is better for you to feel the sting of playtesters digging into your creation and rending it from limb to limb, than it is to go all the way to production and release, and then have the majority of the boardgaming community revile it with all the enthusiasm that film critics have unleashed on “Gigli.” It’ll certainly save you money, and in the long run, it might just point you in the direction of creating a better game.

Oh yes: by the end of my college years, the two underclass fiction magazines in my college were publishing my stories every semester. Had I not been humiliated that night, I probably would never have learned how to write.

2) You can have beautiful mechanics, lovely art, rousing gameplay, and the deepest of strategies in your game, and all of that will go to crap if you don’t document it properly. The box cover may be the first thing your players will see and associate with your game, but the rulebook will be the first real contact they’ll have with the game’s rules. If you’re not careful, it could be their last.

Blind test your rules. Make sure people can get started as quickly as possible. Include reference cards if you have to. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle plenty of gameplay examples into your documentation. Leave people with no possible doubt about how to play a rule. Just like anything else in your game, don’t take any criticism of your rulebook-in-progress as an insult, because when it comes out, it’s too late to change the impression your players will have if they can’t figure out the rules. No revisions on your website can change that impression.

3) If you’re serious about game design, and you have a theme that you adore, for crying out loud, don’t waste the theme on your first game. From talking with other amateur game designers, and reading interviews with published designers, I can see one constant: your first design will stink. My first design – in fact, my first few designs – bent over backwards so far to fit the theme, they wound up with boring and/or unplayable mechanics. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case with Time Control.

Nevertheless, you have to create those first awful games in order to learn how to make a good game. Once you create a game that actually is playable and fun, you can always revisit the theme of those first broken games and figure out how to turn them into definite bestsellers.

I have a bunch of designs I’m working on right now. I’ve already deep-sixed one of them, and I think two more are about to go in the trash can, even though they’re in late beta testing. I just don’t find them fun enough. Better for that to be their fate than to have someone feel they’ve wasted their time and money with something I’ve created.

I know this was a long post; I appreciate everyone’s patience, and I hope I’ve helped someone with it today. :)

~Gil

FastLearner
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There but for the grace of God go we...

Great summary, and I couldn't agree more. I've got a whole large-sized notebook full of designs that will never see the light of day. Oh sure, maybe I'll use some bits and pieces, some game mechanics that I haven't seen used before that seem clever, but except perhaps for one game (of the 15 or so in there), the rest will never been seen again.

I think people get confused by the fact that enjoying something that was created is easy, but creating it isn't nearly as easy. It sure is easy to read a good book, but there are literally millions of unpublshed books that prove it's much harder to create one.

As an aspiring designer I figure I'm in the same place as an aspiring "anything" that requires talent. If I decide I want to be a painter because I enjoy paintings, it would be ludicrous of me to assume that my first paintings were going to be professsional quality. I have no reason to believe it's any different with my first games.

I moved this topic to reviews, but I think I'll move it back to design because, having read it, I realize it's really about design and not about the game itself so much.

Scurra
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There but for the grace of God go we...

An excellent piece.
I regularly joke that I have managed to move out of the "bad" game design stage, and have entered the "OK" game design stage. And one day I aspire to reach the "good" game design stage :) (Several of my playtesters tell me I'm still in the "bad" stage, but I easily refute this by showing them some of my first designs!)

And your point about rules is excellent. One of the bonuses of the Games Design Workshop process is that it forces you to deliver a ruleset for a game that has to be read by complete strangers (albeit likeminded ones.) I thought that I had done alright with the "WarZone" ruleset, but there were several comments that made it clear I hadn't managed it quite as well as I had hoped.

For instance, the ruleset I gave to my playtesters tonight (for a new game) suffered particularly badly from this problem, since they really needed to be read in reverse order; although they were laid out in game sequence order, without knowing the later parts, the earlier bits were nigh on meaningless.
Ah well.

FastLearner
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There but for the grace of God go we...

Key things in rules for me (which I tried to implement in my current GDW ruleset, even though I whipped it up in a day):

1. Please start with a summary of how the game works. Context is everything for me. If it ties into the theme well then the summary will help a lot.

2. If there are going to be a series of phases in the game, please give me brief explanations first and give me a sense of how they work together.

3. If there are going to be different actions I will need to choose from, please summarize them first and give me an idea why I'd want to do them.

4. Don't explain detailed rules for anything until you've given me a solid grounding in the basics and how they work together. Bogging me down in details before I understand what else is going on is going to lose me. Just like they don't teach calculus to 8 year olds but instead start with basic arithmetic, don't try to weigh me down with details and complexities from the start.

5. Whenever possible please don't tell me you'll explain something later. Try to find a way to not even bring it up until that later time. If halfway through the rules I've got 6 different rule exceptions dangling in my brain I know I'm going to have to reread them at least twice more to make it all fit together.

If every game did those things well the rules would be much easier to consume, I think. In a sense rules can be written like a novel, where the writer brings me along on a tale, slowly revealing more and more without frustrating me with too little "meat" early on.

IngredientX
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There but for the grace of God go we...

FastLearner wrote:

I moved this topic to reviews, but I think I'll move it back to design because, having read it, I realize it's really about design and not about the game itself so much.

I appreciate it! I really didn't set out to review Time Control; more to show it as an example of a game that was held back because of its design.

I used to work as a sound editor for picture. I worked on a lot of low-budget movies, some of them really bad. Funny, most film snobs learn what makes a good movie from watching good movies. I learned what makes a good movie from watching bad movies. It's upside-down and inside-out, but it can work.

So while I love playing Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence, I valued my experience playing Time Control because it showed me what a badly-written manual looked like, and what a questionably-designed mechanic felt like.

Again, the disclaimer: I hate singling out this one game, and I really hope that if Mr. Thompson is a member of this forum, that he's busy working on a game with kick-ass mechanics and a comprehensive, well-written rulebook.

~Gil

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