The longest board game I’ve ever played was Risk in 2008 against an old high school friend. It sounds a little bit absurd, but if I recall it correctly, the game lasted around twelve hours, eventually ending in a tie. What was so entertaining about this game that it kept us at the game board? I didn’t think about it back then, tired and battered after hours of caffeine abuse and sugar consumption, but thinking about it now it must have been the extremely competitive action and that surge of power you felt after claiming your friend’s territory. It is that struggle for power and the ability to directly affect other players that we wanted to incorporate into our board game, Dawn of Tribes, when Keiran and I sat down for lunch and started brainstorming. Surely it couldn’t be that hard to implement that same sense of dominance, that feeling of being on the verge of annihilating ever other player on the board, we thought. But the genius behind games like Risk, the polished turn structures and all its nifty relationships between the different elements of the game, only becomes apparent when you actually attempt to recreate it.
The objective of our game was simple: As one of several Tribes in the paleolithic era (fancy for “late stone age”), players must gain strength by claiming caves and resources in order to eventually claim the greatest of all caves: the MOTHER CAVE! Some challenges are determined by chance, some through the principle of first-come-first-served, others by sheer strength.
After a couple of days of conceptualizing we finally had a working system and a solid rule book. Time to test the game. Only a few minor tweaks to the game board and chance system, and the play testing could begin.
The first play-through went pretty smooth. Except for some imbalances in the battle system and pace, everything seemed to work out.
Re-tuned and refined, the game was ready to be tested with a larger group.
It was then when we realized we had to re-evaluate our magnificent ideas and go back to the drawing board: some players would be ridiculously overpowered, one would completely fall behind without any chance of catching up, it took six turns until two players were engaged in battle (what actually should have been the very essence of the game), etc.. Playing our game with three players gave the game a completely different dynamic versus playing it with two. In addition to our own observations, we also gained feedback from our play-testers, Lindsay, Ian, and Paul – among technical things, how much/little fun they had playing the game. I must add at this point it is always an incredible feeling to see other people play the game you have worked so hard on and observe their reactions to it. But having friends and family test your game also carries another huge benefit: A perspective to your game which you might not have considered during the design process, preoccupied with all the variables and relationships between the objects. And it is just at that moment where the significance of play-testing burns itself into your brain, as opposed to just reading about it in various game design literature. Play-test, play-test, play-test. Without an iterative design approach we would have never been able to build a game that is even remotely fun, challenging, and most importantly, balanced. It pays off very well in the end.