Ever since I got involved in board gaming I’ve wanted to do two things: design my own game and playtest a game from an experienced designer. I’ve happily come to terms with the fact that I may never end up designing my own game but I did recently get the opportunity to fulfill my second goal. With a kickstarter in full swing The Ancient World is an absolutely gorgeous and approachable worker-placement that I had the privilege to help playtest.
My Journey Into the World of Playtesting
Back in September 2013 I saw a short blurb on BoardGameGeek News about an upcoming game called The Ancient World by Ryan Laukat (Eight-Minute Empire, City of Iron). I hadn’t actually played any of his games at that point but part of the description caught my interest, “The Ancient World combines the depth and tactics of a worker-placement game with the variety and easy set-up of a card game”. I love worker-placement and card games so as I do with most games that sound interesting but lack details I decided to subscribe it on BoardGameGeek and then promptly forget about it.
It wasn’t until the end of the year that the next bit of information came out when Ryan asked for playtesters on BGG. There wasn’t much more then before but I continued to be intrigued by his description of a “civ-building card game with worker-placement” where “players build up civilizations and fight ancient titans” that played in 90 minutes and could accommodate 2 players. I was initially torn because this would be my first foray into playtesting and I didn’t want to commit to something that I wouldn’t have the time to follow through on. But I figured at worst it would take over my regular gaming so I decided to give it a shot. I emailed Ryan the next day and heard back from him shortly after that with a confirmation that I could help playtest his game. This was a very exciting moment for me because I was finally getting an insiders look at something before it came out. As a reviewer I’m often jealous of people who get advanced game copies and are able to shape the initial impression of that game in our community. Coincidentally I was able to get my first preview of another game, oddball Aeronauts, around the same time but this was an even more exciting experience. Being a playtester meant that I was not only getting the chance to preview the game but also provide feedback that could be used to help develop the game. I intended to take my playtesting seriously and although I’m sure my overall impact on the game’s development was relatively small I was determined to help as much as I could.
A package arrived about a week later which contained the rules along with various cards and bits for The Ancient World. I wasn’t expecting the graphical design to be very far along because I’ve heard over and over that that you shouldn’t spend much time on design when you’re still testing. However, it turns out that Ryan had been working on The Ancient World for several years at this point and the copy that he sent me looked to be just shy of final release quality (and perhaps higher quality than some games I own). I’m sure it helps that he designs and illustrates his own games but I was extremely impressed right from the point of unpacking the box. This helped significantly when trying to convince people to help test the game with me but I’ll come back to that in a little bit. I only had enough time to skim through the rules and cards after opening the box but it sounded like it would indeed deliver on the description of worker-placement meets card civ-builder. That night I had the chance to look through everything a little more in depth and move the game over to a spare expansion box that I had lying around.
I was excited to play it over lunch at my office but before doing that I decided to try out something new, I’d played the game by myself to make it easier to teach. I had heard of people doing this, setting up a game and taking on the role of multiple players in order to learn a game (or even just for fun). I never saw the appeal of doing this with a game before but in this case I wanted to make a good first impression so that people would agree to play again. So I set up my very first solo two-player game and proceeded to play out a very tense and exciting first game much to my surprise. Now I wasn’t surprised that the game was good, I had high expectations for it even in the playtesting form. Rather, I was surprised that I enjoyed playing it so much as a solo game. I felt oddly connected to and invested in both players. When I made a move to block one player I was both smugly satisfied as the blocking player as well and frustrated as the player being blocked. I had each player pursue a different strategy and found it rewarding to be exploring different facets of the game from multiple perspectives as I played. I feel like this was very helpful for providing detailed feedback on what strategies I had pursued and made it easier to recall specifics after the game had ended. While I was happy with my experience it did end up taking about twice as long as I expected it normally would since I had to switch back and forth between the two players all game long. I can now see why people play a game this way before teaching it. I still vastly prefer playing with real opponents but it didn’t end up being the boring solitaire experience that I was dreading. In fact, I would end up playing several more games this way over the next month in an effort to get as many games in as possible.
With one play under my belt I now felt ready to teach the game to some real life opponents and was fairly confident that it would go over well. My main concern was letting people know upfront that I was playtesting a game and have them opt for a published game instead. Luckily I was able to find a couple opponents that were more than willing to try it out with me. I believe that the polished rules and artwork went a long way towards actually getting people to agree to play it in the first place. I can only imagine how hard it is to playtest your game when it is still in the initial phases. Fortunately I didn’t have to face this challenge and although there were still some kinks in the gameplay during this game we all enjoyed our play and my opponents expressed interest in playing it again. I jotted down some notes after the game was over but was still learning what would be useful for reporting back to Ryan and the other playtesters. In my second game I attempted to take notes while the game was being played but found that this made the game take far too long. I eventually settled on recording players’ final tableaus and using that as the best way to recall what had happened without slowing things down during the actual game.
Ryan had requested that we write some details from each game that we played and decided to use BGG’s game forum as the main place to gather our reports. He eventually started a second thread after the first one reached 7 pages full of game details and debates. Along with session reports we discussed what game mechanics and features could be tweaked to address the issues that we were finding. The second thread would go on to reach 9 pages and between those two threads you can read the full history of our playtesting from our first games all the way through final decisions before Ryan headed to Kickstarter. I was initially surprised that Ryan had decided to make the playtesting such a public process but it was an incredibly convenient medium to use and allowed for a great exchange of ideas between all the testers and Ryan. I’d be interested to see if anyone will go back after the game is released to see what things looked like during the playtesting stage and see what issues were hotly debated. I know that I’d love to get a peak into the process on several of my favorite games (which is exactly what the popular Secret History articles by Donald X nicely summarize).
One of the most humbling experiences from playtesting came after several of us playtesters had suggested various changes that could be made to help balance the game. I’d like to point out that we weren’t trying to fix the game, it played very smoothly right out of the humble usps box. Instead, we were (hopefully) respectfully brainstorming things that could be changed to make the experience more enjoyable or prevent abusable strategies. That is my understanding of one of your roles as a playtester. What I found was that after all the suggestions came in that Ryan would propose an incredibly creative and elegant solution which surpassed anything that we had come up with to that point. He used some of our ideas from time to time but it was clear that the game (and design decisions) was much better off in his hands because he had put a lot more time into developing it than any of us. It’s hard to say exactly how much of an impact we had on the game’s development but I’d like to think that we were able to at least speed along the process and insert some of own ideas into the design.
During the process it was interesting to see all the perspectives that were brought to playtesting by the various players. I have a tendency to want to add complexity in order to balance things and I’m sure that this caused some frustration among those that wanted to keep the game simple. But this dynamic demonstrated the idea of having a small community with varied perspectives involved. We bounced ideas around, proposing and defending our reasoning behind changes that we wished to see or why we thought things were better off left alone. You could almost view it as a bunch of people discussing their house rules, I found myself disagreeing when someone was proposing to change the game in a way that shifted the balance away from the dynamic that I wanted to create. At the end of the day though Ryan would come in and give his verdict like a patient judge that waited to hear all the sides before making his ruling.
I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the whole process by saying that I’m quite grateful at being given the chance to finally be a part of playtesting such a great game. Even though Ryan’s reputation is excellent I still felt like I was taking a chance that I would end up testing a game that I was less than enthusiastic about. Fortunately I was very pleasantly surprised to be involved in the development of a game that I would happily have purchase on my own. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more opportunities to playtest in the future.
My Completely Biased Opinion
I’ll fully acknowledge that it is tough to get an unbiased opinion from a playtester but I fully intend to give my thoughts on The Ancient World from my experience playing the game. Since this is an article mostly about a playtesting process I’ll make it brief and leave the full overview and impressions for a preview in the not so distant future. One of the most compelling things that I found about The Ancient World was that it took many of the aspects that I enjoy from worker placement (tension, limited action optimization, varied paths) and tableau card games (variability, card synergy, tactical play) and combine them seamlessly. If you look at my favorite games you’ll see that I’m a big fan of both mechanics so something like this has a lot of appeal to me. Combine with the fact that you can easily get a 2-player game in under an hour and this one fits into a pretty compelling position in my collection. I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on the gorgeous looking final version.
The Ancient World is currently on Kickstarter and has already been funded with over two weeks left in the campaign. As someone that has already thoroughly enjoyed my dozen plays I’ll encourage you to go check it out. There should be plenty more previews, updates, and stretch goals in the weeks to come and stay tuned here for my full preview.