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"Conspiracy" play test session

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zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969

The prototype of "Urban Construct" is in the hands of the people of Hippodice and I consider "Gheos" to be completely finished, so I found it was time to finally start playtesting a new prototype and my choice was: "Conspiracy". I invited Jan and Bruno, my most loyal and critical playtesters, to try it out.

A short description of the game... The game is set in a Medieval European kingdom. Each player is at the head of a family and tries to get their family members into important positions in certain organisations. The different organisations are: Nobility, Church, four different Guilds, the Order of the Golden Knife and the Tribunal.

Occupying a certain position in a certain organisation gives you the right to play certain action cards, give you acces to either money or said action cards or are worth a certain amount of Victory Points. Juggling all these factors and having a family member at the right place at the right time is what the game is (or rather should) be all about.

There are three positions in the game that have a certain privilige. Those three positions are: the King (the highest ranked member of the Nobility), the Tradesmaster (the highest ranked member of the first Guild) and the Bisshop (the highest ranked member of the Church).

The game lasts a number of rounds. A round is divided into three phases.

The first phase is the negotiation phase, in which players may negotiate with eachother, make promises (or threats!), trade cards, trade money and even positions on the board. Players are in no way obliged to keep the promises made during this phase! This phase ends when the King wants it to end or when all the other players agree to end it.

The second phase is the action phase. In this phase the players may execute two actions which can be:
- Placing a familymember on the board
- Move a familymember from one position on the board to another
- Draw an action card
- Play an action card

The player who occupies the Bisshop position starts the action phase. The actions cards contain different "take that"-style of actions. Some cost money to play and you need to occupy certain positions on the board to be able to play certain action cards. For example, if you have a family member at the head of the Tribunal you may put another player's family member in jail with the "Arrest" card. Or, if you have a member in the Church, you may play the card "Divine intervention" which switches the position of two persons in the same organisation. With the "Murder" card you may remove one person from play entirely, etc.

In the third phase the player with the Tradesmaster chooses a powercard from two face-up stacks. This powercard dictates over which organisation money is dealt or action cards and how much.

There are also powercards that invoke a scoring round, in which case the players get victory points based upon which positions their familymembers occupy on the board. The game ends after the third scoring round and there are some bonuses for most money and most cards at the end. Winner is the player with the most points.

Explaining the game went quite smooth, even though there are a number of different mechanics at work and there are quite a number of different action cards with different effects. Then again, Jan and Bruno are experienced gamers, used to play games with complicated rules.

Jan and Bruno were immediately grabbed by the theme and found the game a lot of fun. The balance in power of the different action cards was of course way off, but this was something I had expected and is not too hard to tweak. Bruno commented that there should be a wider variety of action cards, which I think is a good idea, although there's always a fine balance between "not enough" and "too much".

One rule that we changed after a few rounds of play is that a player has two actions during his turn. This proved too strong. We changed it so that a player has only one action, but there are two action rounds right after eachother. So rather than an AABBCC pattern there now was a ABCABC pattern which was more balanced.

I found the negotiation phase a bit flat. This probably had to do with the fact that we only played with 3 players (I want the game to work with at least up to 5) and the fact that I'm not such a good negotiator myself. I tend to be a bit passive, unless I can get a really lucrative deal. Bruno and Jan didn't seem to have any problems with it.

Another problem was that the game was much too long. After almost an hour and a half we only had had one scoring round, with the second not yet in sight. At that point I stopped the game and we started talking about what could be improved. Bruno and Jan had a lot of good suggestions, in particular for the action cards. In short (I know most of this won't make sens if you don't know what the action cards do, so this is more for myself than for the reader :wink: ):
- The "Raise Tax" cards are not very interesting because they are not powerful enough on themselves and because they can be too easily nullified by playing a "Lower Tax" card.
- The "Steal" card is too powerful, broken even.
- The "Murder" card is very powerful.
- The "Craft" cards were never used, because the money that is needed to play them always seems more useful for other purposes.
- The "Arrest" card is a bit too weak when compared to the "Murder" card
- The "Veto" card is a bit weak, because it costs so much money to play it against a really powerful action card.

Some ideas to fix one and other:

- Let there be a bit more money in the game, so that both the "Craft" card gets a bit more interesting, the "Veto" card is more playable and the "Steal" card is weaker. Another idea is to lower the numbers on the cards, which also makes the "Steal" card less powerful and the "Veto" card more powerful.

- Colorcode the cards, so that it's easy to see in one glance which position in which organisation can play which card.

- Action cards that target a high ranked member of an organisation have an additional cost of discarding a card in the color of that organisation. Targeting the King costs yet an extra card. This weakens the power a bit of the targeted cards (which are all a bit too strong) and it also makes the negotiation phase a bit more interesting and lively as players now also need to action cards of the right color.

Another good suggestion was to put two symbols on the powercards, so that two organisations benefit from the draw of one powercard. This is a good suggestion because it both tones down the power of the Tradesmaster and it speeds up the game a bit. Also, it makes the number of rounds between scoring rounds shorther, which makes the decision whether to go for more resources (cards / money) OR victory points more interesting, because there is less time.

All things considered the game was well received and seems to have that "spark of life" that makes it worthwile to further develop it. I think this stage is my favorite part of designing games, having a game system that shows promise and then coming up with creative solutions to existing problems.

Undoubtly to be continued.... :)

- Rene Wiersma

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
"Conspiracy" play test session

This sounds like a super-cool game, right up my alley! I'm actually working on a game that is superficially similar. It's a "succession"-themed game, but the idea is you're trying to place family members using card play, which costs money, etc, though I suspect the mechanical implementation is somewhat different. I'll let you know more about it as I get further.

It sounds to me like possible "problems" with the game could be that if the game is all about power cards, and these are drawn blindly (and as one of your two actions!), and further that there's a lot of variability in them, then the game will be very luck heavy, or at the least, very opportunistic in its feel. I could see there not being much room to negotiate simply by virtue of it being difficult to get cards into your hand. What you might consider is a structure where every card can be used by every faction, but with varying ability. So, the "thieves' guild" is way better at stealing than the church, say, but either one is capable of the action in principle. This also could make interesting strategic decisions -- do I burn an action dropping a guy in the thieves' guild so I can steal more effectively, or use my Abbot to steal from the collection plate (but only a little) and using my other action doing something else that I want to do?

Also, I'm concerned that there isn't enough action to justify the phased structure. It seems to me that with each player only taking 2 actions, and these being pretty short and punchy, that there are relatively too many negotiation phases per action phase.

I really like the idea of the two face up power cards, and one player decides which will be performed. That means you can plan a bit around what could possibly happen, and decide whether you want to position yourself for the payoff, or for the right to choose, or set yourself up for something longer-term. Could lead to some cool decisions, depending on what the deck looks like!

This game reminds me a bit of Lowenherz meets Who Stole Ed's Pants for some weird reason -- I guess because of the action selection system combined with the hierarchical system. There doesn't appear to be any actual mechanical similarity with either game.

This one sounds great! Thanks for sharing your report! I look forward to hearing more about the development of this game, and hope to play it when it comes out in stores somewhere down the road. Definitely sounds like something I'd pick up!

-Jeff

zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969
"Conspiracy" play test session

jwarrend wrote:
It sounds to me like possible "problems" with the game could be that if the game is all about power cards, and these are drawn blindly (and as one of your two actions!), and further that there's a lot of variability in them, then the game will be very luck heavy, or at the least, very opportunistic in its feel. I could see there not being much room to negotiate simply by virtue of it being difficult to get cards into your hand.

What you might consider is a structure where every card can be used by every faction, but with varying ability. So, the "thieves' guild" is way better at stealing than the church, say, but either one is capable of the action in principle. This also could make interesting strategic decisions -- do I burn an action dropping a guy in the thieves' guild so I can steal more effectively, or use my Abbot to steal from the collection plate (but only a little) and using my other action doing something else that I want to do?

Well, it's not that hard to get new cards into hand. What you might have missed is the fact that every other turn or so there is an injection of action cards into the game (typically between 6 and 10). When a powercard is drawn during the 3rd phase, it distributes money or action cards over an organisation. In the new version the powercards will distribute money AND action cards, which speeds up the game a bit I hope.

Drawing a card as an action is a bit like taking the "Prospector" in Puerto Rico. It's always useful, but you often there are more important things to do. It is not the most efficient way of getting cards, but it is important for the gamesystem that this possibility exists.

Drawing action cards blindly does add a certain amount of luck into the game. I don't see this as a problem as long as the action cards themselves are more or less balanced. Moreover, the fact that some cards are useful to one player while being useless to another promotes trading. I'm afraid that making cards more or less useful to everyone diminishes the value of trading.

On the other hand, your idea also makes the drawing a bit less random and solves the problem of a player not being able to do anything if he missed out on certain key positions, which might happen theoretically. It is something I will have to contemplate.

Quote:

Also, I'm concerned that there isn't enough action to justify the phased structure. It seems to me that with each player only taking 2 actions, and these being pretty short and punchy, that there are relatively too many negotiation phases per action phase.

This was one of my concerns as well initially, but it worked well in practice. The negotation phases are usually relatively short , because the King or the rest of the players are able to put a cap on its length. This prevents endless haggling and puts length and importance of the negotiation phase in line with the action phase.

Quote:

I really like the idea of the two face up power cards, and one player decides which will be performed. That means you can plan a bit around what could possibly happen, and decide whether you want to position yourself for the payoff, or for the right to choose, or set yourself up for something longer-term. Could lead to some cool decisions, depending on what the deck looks like!

Actually, there are two face-up queues of powercards (first-in first-out), so you can see what is coming in the future as well. This makes the game strategic and indeed makes for interesting decisions.

Thanks for the comments Jeff! I will let you know how the game develops.

- Rene Wiersma

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
"Conspiracy" play test session

zaiga wrote:

Well, it's not that hard to get new cards into hand. What you might have missed is the fact that every other turn or so there is an injection of action cards into the game (typically between 6 and 10). When a powercard is drawn during the 3rd phase, it distributes money or action cards over an organisation. In the new version the powercards will distribute money AND action cards, which speeds up the game a bit I hope.

I understood that it worked this way, but wasn't sure which was the more "primary" way of getting action cards.

Quote:

Drawing action cards blindly does add a certain amount of luck into the game. I don't see this as a problem as long as the action cards themselves are more or less balanced. Moreover, the fact that some cards are useful to one player while being useless to another promotes trading. I'm afraid that making cards more or less useful to everyone diminishes the value of trading.

Not necessarily -- under the system I proposed (which is somewhat derived from an idea in "Kreig und Frieden"), some cards are more useful to different factions than others, so there's still opportunity for trade. It's just that you never end up with a card in your hand that is completely useless to you. And that's important, because "trade mitigates bad draws" is useful in theory but there will always be times when you have a card that you can't use and no one else wants.

Quote:

On the other hand, your idea also makes the drawing a bit less random and solves the problem of a player not being able to do anything if he missed out on certain key positions, which might happen theoretically. It is something I will have to contemplate.

Hey, that's fine...if you don't use it, I'm sure I will at some point!

Quote:

This was one of my concerns as well initially, but it worked well in practice. The negotation phases are usually relatively short , because the King or the rest of the players are able to put a cap on its length. This prevents endless haggling and puts length and importance of the negotiation phase in line with the action phase.

This is an interesting "king" power, it's kind of like the "trade master" in Mare Nostrum (I guess, not having played yet) where you can choose how much trading to allow, or whether to allow trade at all. It does seem like a powerful power, but I guess that also makes the king a hotly contested position.

What I'd be worried about is a big "back and forth" effect of the take that card play. "Ha! You're not king anymore!" "Oh yeah? Well now, I am king again!" But I guess that the limitation of which cards can be played where is intended to mitigate that.

Anyway, as I said, it does sound interesting! I look forward to hearing more!

-J

FastLearner
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Joined: 12/31/1969
"Conspiracy" play test session

The game sounds like it's right up my alley as well, Rene, very cool. If you're looking for blind playtesting at some point it sounds like the type of game my group enjoys, as well, so I'm sure I could easily convince them to lend a hand.

Like Jeff said, keep us informed!

-- Matthew

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