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Song of the Dwarf Lords: first playtest session

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Chad_Ellis
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Joined: 12/31/1969

(This game is discussed in the Game Design forum)

We had four players for our first playtest session. The game was pretty good fun. The auction was very interesting with a surprisingly large amount of maneuvering, and the flow of the game was fun, but (unsurprisingly!) we identified a number of problems.

1. Annexation was explosive under the rules where you could annex as much as you wanted and just paid escalating gold. One guy wasn't able to start annexing the same turn as the rest of us and was effectively out of the game.

2. Towards the end the lands that produce lots of gold but have a cost in honor are bad, so no one was taking them. As the rules stood, we got to a situation with four of them out (four players) in which case no cards would be dealt.

3. The only use for gold in the late game was bidding.

The first two were very easy to solve. After the first game we said that annexing a land requires the sacrifice of a soldier unit (to guard the land). Since you can only recruit one soldier per turn (at the moment), this essentially caps annexation at one per turn on average. (Another solution we considered was simply to increase the rate of escalation, but this still leaves a runaway leader problem.) The second problem is solved by saying you deal up X lands per turn (where X is the number of players) regardless of whether there are unclaimed lands from last turn. We're also going to make the leftover lands more attractive, possibly by having them gain one honor per turn or five gold instead of one.

There are a few possibilities for the lack of uses for gold. One would be to make it possible to hire more than one unit of soldiers per turn but with a steeply escalating cost. That would make it possible to annex multiple lands per turn but only in the later game so someone who started a turn behind wouldn't be in big trouble. It would also make the struggle for largest army (another source of honor) more interesting.

Hugs,
Chad

zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Song of the Dwarf Lords: first playtest session

Chad,

Perhaps it is a good idea to award extra honor to the player with the most gold (and perhaps second-most also, but less honor of course) at the end of the game. This gives players an incentive to still go for gold in later stages of the game. It's a standard design trick, really :)

By the way, the game reminds me a bit of Boomtown, in the sense that it uses a funky bidding mechanism to distribute a number of cards (mines) between the players every turn. Those cards then produce more money, or have some other effects. I thought Boomtown was a decent game, but the bidding got a bit repetitive towards the end. Perhaps you can take a look at Boomtown for inspiration or to see what to avoid :)

- René Wiersma

Brykovian
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Joined: 07/21/2008
Song of the Dwarf Lords: first playtest session

Hi Chad ...

I think it would add to the game to make several different ways/reasons to use gold *besides* the bidding. Allowing the purchase of extra soldiers is good. Perhaps there would be room to be able to pay for extra honor along the way -- like bribing people of the lands you currently hold, or the neighboring lands. Perhaps having to pay to maintain the land you hold would be good.

Ignore this if you like: {Something just hit me and I think I'll share it with you, although it would increase the component needs of the game. What if you had a deck of "honor quest" cards that would essentially give some extra story to the game. "Pay 3 gold to pull a prank on the neighboring Elves -- earns 1 honor." As players would buy these, new ones would be flipped up for purchase. The cards could even have a chance-factor involved. "Pay 3 gold to pull a prank on the nieghboring Elves ... roll 1D6 -- 1,2,3,4 = 1 honor; 5,6 = 2 honor" or something similar.}

-Bryk

Chad_Ellis
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Song of the Dwarf Lords: first playtest session

zaiga wrote:
Perhaps it is a good idea to award extra honor to the player with the most gold (and perhaps second-most also, but less honor of course) at the end of the game. This gives players an incentive to still go for gold in later stages of the game. It's a standard design trick, really :)

I've considered this, and it has its good and bad points. A good point is that without it the Contest on the last turn is silly, with everyone just going all-in, since gold is immediately worthless after the contest. Giving some value to gold could make the final contest a bit more interesting. It could also have synergy with the "largest army" award(s).

Quote:
By the way, the game reminds me a bit of Boomtown, in the sense that it uses a funky bidding mechanism to distribute a number of cards (mines) between the players every turn. Those cards then produce more money, or have some other effects. I thought Boomtown was a decent game, but the bidding got a bit repetitive towards the end. Perhaps you can take a look at Boomtown for inspiration or to see what to avoid :)

Thanks! I'll pick up a copy and see what I can learn from it.

Hugs,
Chad

Chad_Ellis
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Song of the Dwarf Lords: first playtest session

Brykovian wrote:

I think it would add to the game to make several different ways/reasons to use gold *besides* the bidding. Allowing the purchase of extra soldiers is good. Perhaps there would be room to be able to pay for extra honor along the way -- like bribing people of the lands you currently hold, or the neighboring lands. Perhaps having to pay to maintain the land you hold would be good.

One challenge for giving players lots of individual options is that one of the good things about game-play is that it feels simultaneous rather than turn-based. All the players offer gifts in the Contest, then all the players gain control of a land, then all have the opportunity to annex, etc. If players have a lot of individual activities they can engage in, that could disrupt this flow.

Quote:
Ignore this if you like: {Something just hit me and I think I'll share it with you, although it would increase the component needs of the game. What if you had a deck of "honor quest" cards that would essentially give some extra story to the game. "Pay 3 gold to pull a prank on the neighboring Elves -- earns 1 honor." As players would buy these, new ones would be flipped up for purchase. The cards could even have a chance-factor involved. "Pay 3 gold to pull a prank on the nieghboring Elves ... roll 1D6 -- 1,2,3,4 = 1 honor; 5,6 = 2 honor" or something similar.}

Actually, this is the line I'm thinking along now. The original version of the game had both land and "action" cards and players could take either. That version had some major playtest problems so I cut the action cards when I reformed the game.

One of the problem with action cards is that it's pretty much impossible to balance a one-off effect with ongoing effects. If they are good enough to be worthwhile on turn one they are generally broken towards the end of the game. However, I still think they deserve a role in the final version, as an addition rather than an alternative to land cards. At the risk of having too many auctions, I thought it might be cool to have the players bid for the action cards -- sometimes with gold and sometimes with honor! The chance to hire three mercenary soldier units would go to the highest gold bidder, for example, while an opportunity to gain 20 gold by trading with goblins would go to whoever "bid" the most honor.

Hugs,
Chad

Chad_Ellis
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Another few playtest games

Over Thanksgiving I was able to playtest SotDL with some family members. As many of them aren't serious gamers, I decided to cut the soldiers out and simplify the "annex" rule to a requirement that you have two adjoining lands and a payment of five gold (only one annex per turn). This worked fairly well, and under the current rules seems just better since the soldiers don't add enough real choices to justify the added actions and components.

That said, I felt the game was a little too simple in its current form and some of the players agreed. (My wife said she thought it must be too simple because she enjoyed playing and she finds most "real" games too complicated. Heh.) So I'm now working on some ways to keep the soldier mechanic but make it richer so there are more decisions to make. Some ideas:

1. Make soldiers (and annexing) more expensive. Under the current rules it's virtually automatic that on your turn you upkeep the soldiers you have, hire a new soldier and annex a land. IMO, any decision that is automatic is unbalanced. Ideally it should be possible to pursue an effective "no/tiny army" strategy, a "big army" strategy and something in between.

2. Use action cards (as discussed above) to add spice to the mechanic. Actions could include the chance to hire soldiers, to battle orcs (gaining honor but losing soldiers), etc.

3. Change the annexation rules. At the moment, once you've annexed a land you can pretty much keep annexing each turn, since in a hex pattern the land you annex and one of your old lands will border on a new land to take. If I required you to have three adjacent lands that would make it less automatic, but I'm not sure if this is good or just arbitrary.

On the plus side:

1. The fundamental gold vs. honor tension seems to be working well. Players can definitely come from behind in honor by dominating the later auctions, and indeed it looks like players really have to be careful about WHEN they take the lead in honor. It's sort of like a bike race -- if you break away too soon, you will tire and be overtaken.

2. The dealing up of territories combined with the annexation mechanism does a nice job of making each game play out differently. Players are forced to adjust their strategies as they get their first lands and start trying to identify regions they can push for control of, and there's also a lot of anticipation of other player's agendas -- i.e. I really want this land but to figure out how much to bid in the Contest I need to figure out who else will choose it.

3. The auction mechanic itself is really rich, and seems more interesting than those of most auction games I've played in. There are a lot of situations in which you'll go into an auction with multiple possible goals, e.g. "Can't come in last," "Can only come in first if George is second," because of the way the auction results affect your standing in the victory condition, your "turn" in land selection and how much money you get back out of it.

I'm going to work up new rules over the GenCon weekend and renew playtesting when I get back.

Hugs,
Chad

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