This morning, I ran the first test-run of Armyland. In case you didn’t know, Armyland is the current title of the board game I am working on inventing.
The first test run of a game is an interestingly mixed experience. A peak and a valley, so to speak, at the same time. It’s very exciting to get an idea you’ve been working on for years and years to a physical product that is actually playable. There’s a lot of energy in that. It’s fun to see everything that was on paper, now played out.
At the same time, however, a first run is inevitably plagued with flaws. Not only do you encounter dozens of situations that you didn’t even think of, many of the things you did think of dont play out as well or as smoothly as you thought they would. It’s an extremely important time, because you need to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. You can iron out a ton of problems right away, but at the same time, it sucks a lot of energy out of you when the game you poured yourself into doesn’t play quite as well as you’d hoped.
This mornings test was extremely successful, in that we ran through a lot of things that did work, and ran into a lot of things that didn’t – that are definitely fixable. Still, when you feel like you’ve got something going, it’s a little disheartening to see it crumble, and it can be tough to get back on the horse.
But life goes on, and you learn things. One of the major things I learned from this test is the importance of a game’s theme and sticking, consistently, to it. In his interview, Peter Olotka mentioned this very thing – a theme can make your game unique and stand out against all the other games, but it can also help define how your game plays.
The Theme of Armyland, is, of course, building armies. It’s about piling up Units together, arranging them strategically, and then pounding the enemy armies before they pound you. With this in mind, almost all points were derived from combat – destroying units, dispersing armies, etc. etc. The more powerful the unit is that you defeated, the more points its worth.
Unfortuantely, launching right into the game, the first 40 minutes were occupied by… building. In my first playable rulebook, Fortresses and Villages are a source of drawing resources. Since you need plenty of resources to recruit units for an Army, it makes sense to want to be able to draw 4 or 5 resource cards every turn instead of 1. Unfortunately, this made it very challenging to actually build an army, since all the resources were going towards villages. My intent had been to let the building be somewhat of an extra thing to boost income that would take a backseat to Army building… unfortunately, the game got bogged down as everyone struggled to catch up. It was almost an hour before any actual “Armies” had any interaction, just because of the nature of the start of the game. Resources were tight and hard to come by.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Resource collection and building are not bad things in a game. Many excellent games focus entirely on these things. But Armyland is not supposed to be focused on building villages… its supposed to be focused on building Armies. As such, the fortress-and-village-building mechanics were very simplified. But, they way it was running, they were the becoming the main event of the game. This is where theme comes in. The focus of the game has to make sense with how it plays. A game called Armyland billed as an epic combat game should not have the players spending 40 minutes just trying to build villages so they can collect enough resources to fund their armies. That building mechanic needs to take a backseat.
Again, I’m not saying here that building farms and fortresses should never be the focus of any game. The point here is, to create a better game, the rules – and proportion of time spent on any one mechanic – should reflect that theme.
Not every game needs to have an incredibly detailed theme. There are many good games out there with very simple “themes.” There are also many great games out there with very colorful themes. The reason these games are good are not because they have a theme, but because the way the game plays fits with the theme. Dominion is all about building an empire. So it makes sense that the cards are focused towards elements of cities – and the points come in the form of land. Smallworld is an invasion game where there are too many people and not enough space. The game and mechanics fit that theme well. Munchkin delights in its hilarious simplified-RPG-parody. Catan, a simpler theme, is about exploration and expansion. You wont spend much time in these games doing things that aren’t directly part of the main theme of the game. These games all have very solid themes and execute them very well.
I’ve heard some people say that theme doesn’t matter to them. But i think it should. Theme is very important. The theme tells you what to expect. It gives you an idea of what the game is about before you even open the box.
As for me, it’s back to the drawing board with Armyland. I’ve got to adjust some of the decks of cards to make it easier to build up armies with useful units. I’ve got to kick down the Fortress and Village building a huge notch – I may even remove a significant amount of it from the game, and create a new system for resource management. In the end, progress has been made.
So… what do you guys think about theme? Do you pay attention to the themes of the games you play? Do you like your games to have a nice (even if simple) story behind what’s going on?