MKW: Pushing a Prototype
Tonight, I played a prototype of MKW (working title) the fourth game in my Mechanic is the Message series. This is only the second time I’ve played it, and I’m using a specific prototyping method I refer to as “pushing.”
When I push a prototype, I start with an idea of what I want the game to do, and I have a loose idea of the player dynamic that I’m going for. More often than not, I’m simulating some system that exists in the real world, so it’s a matter of modeling it rather than pulling it from thin air. If you’re an aspiring game designer, look for these pre-existing systems. They are your bread and butter.
In the case of MKW, on the first test, I pushed it from concept through to first prototype. When the other player and I sat down at the table, I had no idea of how it would play, but I did know the system I wanted to emulate and had a rough idea of the dynamic I wanted. So, I literally made up the rules, the resources and the costs for things as we went along. Therein lies the “push.” By necessity, it requires several restarts. Also, sometimes I am not even playing the full game, but pushing a particular system.
This evening was my second push on the prototype. I posted this to twitter:
MKW prototype lives for two rounds before I kill it. Sig rule change affected resource deployment. Need to fix before playing again.
I received the following reply:
@bbrathwaite # of games per round of testing? Rule tweaks between games? Curious how long before “pros” give up on initial design/mechanics.
Obviously, this post is your answer, @ngibson42.
So, when I prototype a game, it feels like I’m starting a soup or something. I expect everything to change. Rarely do I get hooked on specific mechanics or dynamics, unless they have some larger meaning to the overall piece. If I write a full rule set out, I expect that it will change radically from inception to end. If I am pushing the prototype, it’s all in a constant state of flux. I say this to answer that last line – I never really give up on them. I don’t trust them to begin with. They’re like the soup that’s only cooked for 5 minutes which needs something added to it. During play, I am looking for ways to optimize and ways to make players interact more with one another. I will often make rule changes turn to turn and round to round. Tonight, in the space of a single round, I changed:
- Turn order 2x
- The way players obtained key resource #1
- The way players obtained key resource #2
- Clarified (also made up) rules due to player questions
It was one of the resource changes that necessitated a restart of the game. Basically, I made a limited resource which was obtained through random roll instead a deliberate decision and predicated on something else. This change forced a restart after one round. I will not restart for smaller rule changes, even if they make the play “unfair”. Typically, in push sessions like this, the game never actually gets to an end anyway.
When I am playing, I make rule changes constantly. Tonight, I probably made one or two per turn. If you try to push a prototype, it’s important that your players understand that the game isn’t really a game as such, but a concept that will hopefully push a game out the other side. I also ask them to hold back on suggestions during play since they may not understand the full dynamic I am going for, particularly if there are other systems not yet in place. Suggestions and comments come at the end.
I “gave up” on tonight’s prototype session after my first significant resource change affected the way another resource was distributed. It broke the math. Suddenly, there wasn’t nearly enough of it. Player 1 had a very clear advantage. Player 4 was screwed. I kicked it around for a bit, but an obvious solution didn’t show. It’s times like that, and out of respect to my testers, that I kill it. As a designer, you know when you need some time to solve a problem. So, away went MKW and out came a published game.
In my entire career, I have only once had a rule set remain unchanged from concept to completion, and I am surprised that I even got one of those (it was Siochan Leat, the Irish game).
So, I’m working on the MKW problem now. I had an interesting idea tonight which may or may not work. I need to think about it some more. I am tempted to prototype the whole thing in Excel to force the math out, but I think I’ll try a couple alternatives on Monday night instead.