Last Friday night, “The Realm” received its most intense session of playtesting so far. The group consisted of Adam Baker, his wife Courtney, my wife Heather, and me. This was the first time “The Realm” has been tested by four players and I was eager to see how things played out. Adam and Courtney are both very experienced gamers as well as highly intelligent/creative people, and thus I was very interested in their opinions. While they are my friends, I knew that I could count on honest and detailed feedback. I found myself getting strangely nervous while explaining the rules, which is a first for me. I am normally ice water, and had not felt this way while teaching my wife and my other friend Adam Pressnell, but for some reason I was a bundle of nerves this time. I believe it had something to do with the fact that they are so often traveling and/or living a thousand miles across the country, and rather than playing one of the countless classic games that I own, we were going to spend our limited time together playing my game instead. I somehow felt like I was competing with all of the games that we could have been playing and hoped it would not be disappointing for them.
The families were assigned as follows:
Adam played the ruthless and ambitious Borgions.
Courtney played the noble and pious Tintagels.
Heather played the well-rounded and philosophical Averones.
I played the honorable and fierce Kriegers.
We initially planned to play a six month(turn) game with the caveat that if Charlotte, their very young baby, woke up fussing we would have to end the game earlier than planned.
As the game began Adam tried to manipulate the vote at court to add to the influence edge of the Borgions, only to have his plan fail and see the vote go against him. Despite this early set back, the Borgions clung to their lead on the influence track, and thus starting player for the entirety of the game. Heather focused heavily on a borderlands strategy for her honor and glory, while dabbling in the affairs of court to stay within reach on the influence track. My goal was to exploit the unrivaled prowess of Helmut Krieger by dominating the tournament for glory and gold. In addition, I planned to gain honor by guarding the borderlands and by tithing in the temple. Courtney seemed unsure of what strategy she wished to pursue, no shame there having never played the game, and tried her hand in the tournament, to no avail. She also sought greater political influence through intrigues at court.
Heather jumped out to an early lead, by running second in influence, second in glory, and first in honor. Normally the Kriegers would have dominated the Averones in honor, but she was second player the entire game, allowing her to take the +2 honor position in the Borderlands and place a second character there each round. This effectively gave her control of the honor track and kept her competitive in glory. I stayed close with my dominance in glory and second place in honor. Adam was consistently improving his score each round through influence and once the quests started coming out he completed two for large quantities of glory. Courtney struggled, as she could not defeat Helmut in the tournament, and was neither dominant at the borderlands or at court. I am curious if this had anything to do with her being fourth player the entire game. Certainly inexperience did not help, but I want to consider the possibility that being stuck playing fourth might have been too difficult to overcome.
Little Charlotte awoke towards the end of the 3rd month and we decided to end the game after only four months instead of six. This was okay as we had discussed only playing four rounds to begin with, and I felt that I had already gained tons of valuable data by watching the game operate with four players. When the fourth turn ended we totaled the scores to discover I had beaten Heather by only one point! Adam was a close third and Courtney finished in fourth.
Everyone seemed to have good time(whew!), but what followed the game was the best part for me. Adam and I proceeded to have about a 40 minute conversation discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the game, as well as what could be improved. He expressed his belief that it was a good game that just needed some tweaking. I told him that I felt the same way and acknowledged the need for tons of testing and refinement. Courtney said she liked it, and was particularly fond of the flavor of the characters having been named and families been given personality. All in all, more positive feedback, as well as a cornucopia of great observations and suggestions from Adam and Courtney.
The list that follows shows some of the things we observed, discussed, and things I have already modified:
I observed that in its present form the game would be hard pressed to accommodate 5 families, let alone 6. I am not sure if this is a bad thing, or a big problem. I can either limit the game to 5, enlarge the board from its current size, or create a modular board that changes with the number of players. Still it was good to see the systems in place handle 4 players with ease. At this point I will consider my various options to solve this situation.
I need to find a way to make court more contentious. Adam noted that the penalty for being on the wrong side of the vote was so great that it encouraged timid play. Players were staring down the barrel of a net 4 influence loss if they were on the losing side and it simply was not worth the risk. I agreed, and have already changed it to a +1 influence for being on the winning side of a vote and a -1 influence if your side loses. This change should help some, but I also need to carefully examine the laws and look for ways to create more tension in the votes. This is an ongoing process that can only be perfected with more playtesting.
He suggested the idea of either giving the families a static effect and/or a unique action ability they can each take on their castle boards. I admitted that I had considered this very thing, and have since begun exploring the idea of having both. This will only add to the flavor of each family that Courtney enjoyed so much, while enriching the game world as whole.
Adam was the third person to suggest the inclusion of an additional way to gain influence by recommending the purchase of it in the temple through bribery as honor can be gained from tithing. Heather and Adam Pressnell had suggested the same thing. I decided that the evidence was now overwhelming and have officially made that change.
I had my feelings confirmed that too much glory was available in the borderlands compared to the risk or resource investment required. As such, the threats have been strengthened and the glory rewards reduced.
Adam brought up the idea that perhaps the quest area was unnecessary, and only added an extra element of randomness to an otherwise luck free game. His argument was that the quest was always the best space to go if the first player believed he could defeat it and if he could not defeat it the effect might be so bad that his family was now helpless and out of the game through no failure of the player. I admit the game could be played without the quest area, and plan to playtest it in that manner, but at this time I am not prepared to remove it altogether. I disagree that the quest is automatically the best play every time and even if it were, the player would soon find his status as starting player threatened by not defending his influence total. I did agree that some of the consequences of a quest going unchallenged may be a little extreme, although this can be mitigated by hiring the sellsword and repeatedly sending him to his death. This essentially reduces the penalty to a minus 300 gold and one action draft. While this is stiff, it is generally more manageable than the unchallenged effect, and for the most part, if another player can defeat the quest it will be too tempting to resist. For now the quest area will remain mostly unchanged with the possible exceptions of a change to how treasures are determined and perhaps a reduction in the negative effects of a quest not being performed.
Oddly enough, he also suggested the idea of having multiple quests available for the characters to choose from each turn. You gotta love brainstorming! I must confess that I like this idea better than scrapping the quest area completely as the thematic payoffs of the quests are great. I have given this idea some thought, but for now it will not be implemented.
We also discussed the idea of lowering the character attribute spread from 1-10 to 1-6 and following suit with players destiny decks while retaining the zero. I am not necessarily opposed to this idea, and can see that it would tighten up play, but I am concerned that in longer games it might make the destiny situation unmanageable. I need to play some longer games to see how destiny operates under these conditions. If there are still too many of a player’s middle cards not getting used then it may be worth considering shrinking the destiny decks. As for character attributes(Prowess, Cunning, and Piety), I am not sure that I want to narrow the spread. I find that it clearly defines which characters are better at certain tasks with a wide margin in their abilities. I have not ruled out either of these options, but for the time being the rules will remain the same in this regard.
We also talked about how ineffective the spy was in the four player game. Under the rules which we played the spy had to be purchased on one turn, placed on another, and then having gained intel in the area in question a player could then take advantage of this information by placing a character. This works great in a two or three player game, but by the time you finally can benefit from the information you have gained in a four player game the area in question is generally full, or at least beyond your ability to greatly affect it. To remedy this we agreed to let the spy be played immediately upon purchase to streamline the process. This is also consistent with the rules already in effect for the fortune-teller, another information gathering hireling. With further thought on the subject, I have decided to allow all hirelings to be played the turn in which they are employed if the player wishes. A player may choose to wait until a later turn if he feels it serves his strategic plans, but it is no longer required.
There was also some talk about expanding the tavern(area where the hirelings are located) by adding new hirelings or perhaps different levels of the existing ones. For example, there could be more or less powerful sellswords with different prices. I am not opposed to creating more hirelings, but I will not be adding different versions of same ones for now..
As you can see, many new ideas for “The Realm” were proposed and will be considered. It was extremely valuable to my design and refinement process and I am grateful to Adam and Courtney for not only humoring me by playing my game, but also offering genuinely thoughtful suggestions for me to consider. I would also like to thank my wonderful wife Heather for her unyielding support in this challenging endeavor. I could not do any of this without your help baby!
I am looking forward to the next playtest session of “The Realm” to see how the new changes effect the game. I am working on adding family specific castle actions and static family abilities. If these are ready by the next session I plan to include them. Either way it should be interesting!