Train board game: first play test
With a little help from good friend and fellow board game designer, Richard, Saturday marked the first attempt to play though the game.
And it really sucked. Even if the game hadn’t felt tedious and unfocused, the fact that the game would probably take around three to four hours to complete meant we abandoned it well before the end of the game. But it was two hours of seriously good comment, discussion, and insight that will hopefully result in some major changes that will vastly improve the gameplay.
The good, the bad and the ugly
We both agreed that several key aspects of the game were strong and deserved to remain, and I’m thankful that these include the elements that were my original motivation for creating the game. The core spirit of the game should remain, even if a lot of the details will need to change.
But I’m more concerned about the bad than the good; after all, the good points aren’t what is stopping this from being a playable game.
As well as taking far too long to play, the game is very, very tedious. It takes too many game turns and too much effort to perform important actions and achieve key results. At the same time, the game map / board is very large, but ironically it offers too much freedom, lacking any real obstacle to performing key game actions.
The result is that, past a certain point, players have little incentive to develop the rail network further, or to move outside their small corner of the map. The game becomes a very tedious, repetitive set of back and forward movements, with few changes in tactics or strategy required. There is no tension and no real incentive for the player to remain involved in gameplay. And did I mention this probably goes on for nearly four hours? I really didn’t care whether I won the game, how I scored and how I progressed within the game, which is a very bad sign.
The main problems seem to stem from the very literal, tangible train movement system I desired of the game. Each player starts with one train, which they move around the board using action points, picking up resources at ‘source’ tiles, which they transport to ‘destination’ tiles. I was keen that the game should feel a bit less abstract than some other board games, with some real tangibility to the key mechanisms, and I felt this was an important way to achieve it.
Introducing an upgrade later on to give each player two trains instead of one instantly made the game feel more dynamic, as it became a lot easier and faster to perform key actions and achieve results, but the aimless, tedious feeling remained all the same.
I think it’s safe to say the game is seriously flawed. I believe the positive points provide the basis for something that could be a pretty good game, but I am going to need to make some major changes for that to happen.
While playing, Richard and I discussed a range of rule changes that might improve the playability of the game: perhaps train upgrades should come in to the game earlier; maybe a mechanism should be introduced that means you do not have to revisit a destination or resource tile; what about integrating tracks into destination and resource tiles?; maybe players should have control over resource tiles as well as destination tiles; should placing track tiles be compulsory each turn?; maybe movement should be speeded up by allowing trains to move in units of sections of track rather than individual tiles…
The next morning I sat down and formulated a set of rule amendments that attempted to address the concerns raised and improve gameplay. However, it wasn’t long before I realised I was violating the cardinal rule of game design:
Don’t attempt to compensate for a flawed mechanism by throwing more rules at it. Instead correct the flawed mechanism and reduce the number of rules.
The new rules might improve playability a little, but I knew in my gut they would not make enough of a difference, and that they would make an already complex game more difficult to learn and play.
So time to make a brave move: forget about the idea of moving trains across the board. In fact, remove the trains altogether.
I realised that the things I like most about the game don’t have anything to do with the trains themselves, and the worst problems of the game all seem to stem from the rules and mechanisms concerning the movement and actions of the trains. Simple answer: they need to go.
Instead of moving trains, players will place markers indicating their routes along the track network. I was initially reluctant to go this way with the game, as it’s a bit more abstract than I originally envisioned the game and it’s also more similar to other train-themed board games already on sale, but I know in my gut that it’s the right move. The game will still be different enough from other games to make it worthwhile publishing.
More importantly, the new set of draft rules I drew up instantly feel much better. I’ve managed to reduce the number of rules and make it easier to learn the game, while at the same time improving the strategic and tactical elements of the game. There’s more of that all important tension present. Players have more obstacles to work around when creating their delivery networks – and so they have more challenges requiring the formulation of creative solutions – but at the same time, actually creating a delivery route is instantaneous instead of requiring many tedious, boring game turns to achieve. Gameplay should now much more dynamic, requiring and encouraging changes to tactics as the map develops and in reaction to other players’ choices.
At least that’s the idea. I’ll have to order up a few more wooden tokens to accomodate the new way of playing, and of course the proof is in the playing. I can’t wait till the next play test to find out if the changes have made the difference I think they should.