Saturday's session at Spielbany went reasonably well. Four players, three of whom were completely new to the game, were able to understand the rules, acquire information, enter the temple and find the artifact before the enemy track ran out. Unfortunately, the game took quite a long time, and I had to give out some free check marks several times to speed the game up, but I know why that happened and will come back to it. First, the positive notes:
- The temple works pretty well. The turns are quick and you can move through the temple quickly, but it's big enough that there's some time required to explore. And the rooms having mostly three exits each means that you can get almost anywhere, but the route you have to take may be slightly more roundabout than you had hoped. And of course, the temple's enabling "technology"...
- ... The chips-in-the-cup system is very successful. It keeps the turns inside the temple short, and allows for a range of possible bad things to happen randomly, but in a mostly-predictable way, and all within the same framework. This prevents needing a different "trigger" for every bad thing.
- The enemy operatives system worked well as a way to let the enemy's presence grow, and to give players something concrete to struggle against.
There were a few things that didn't work due to balance, but that should be easy to adjust.
- The operatives were a little too easy to de-activate. The rule is that if anyone sees an operative on someone's encounter card, they can fight that operative, (difficulty = number of operatives) and deactivate it. This happened too frequently so by the time they entered the temple, all operatives were deactivated.
- Check marks were too hard to get. Unfortunately, this really smothered the game, but at its core it's a simple problem: most of the theme cards give 1-3 check marks, PLUS some "bonus" check marks, if you discard a specific item card. In practice, although players did acquire some item cards, only once did a player have the right item card to discard when visiting a theme card that called for it. The solution is probably as simple as either letting you discard ANY item to get the bonus check marks, or to make item cards easier to get.
And, there were a few things that players felt need to be adjusted.
- The enemy operatives should do something bad to the player in the temple when they "catch you".
- The theme cards should start on the board, instead of being pulled onto the board after successfully passing an encounter. But they should also be able to move around, or perhaps be moved around by the enemy.
- The need to go to a specific sub-location to visit a theme card was somewhat confusing, but would perhaps be easier if the theme cards all start on the board.
- The idea of a "where's Waldo" mini-game may not fit here; maybe, just make the actionable elements overt on the cards.
- The cube system may be superfluous.
It's this last point that I'd like to consider more fully. I wrote in a previous post about how the intent with the current system is that the cubes represent the enemy's reach on the board, with the operatives being a shadowy and gathering menace. But it's possible that the game could be simpler with a single enemy system, instead of two interlocking enemy systems. The argument in favor of this simplification would be that the functions that the cubes perform could be achieved another way, and that the cubes add fiddliness.
The rules for how cubes are added definitely due suggest some complexity: You add a cube to a city (a) when you arrive there, (b) when you add a theme card to the city, or (c) when you read a clue in a city. The number of cubes in the city determines the number of chips you pull out of the cup, and when a city reaches 5 cubes, you (i) replace the cubes with a big cube (locking the city at 5 cubes), and (ii) activate a new operative, and (iii) henceforth, whenever you're required to add cubes to the city you instead add black chips to the cup.
That's not an absurd number of rules to remember, and players didn't have a big problem keeping it straight, but it is a lot of bureaucracy to patrol, and the functions the cubes perform, activating operatives and controlling the number of chips pulled, can be achieved in different, simpler ways. For example, the number of chips pulled could simply be given by the position on the progress track. It could be split into five sections; in the first section you pull one chip per turn, in the second two, and so on. This could persist through the temple as well. This is not as variable as the current system but it's not obviously worse, and it's certainly simpler. And something similar could trigger the operatives being placed on the board.
In this scheme, the operatives are the enemy's entire presence on the board, both inside and outside the temple. That is, as the previous post discussed, more symmetric. And it could make the theme more concrete: when Operative X is in Cairo, he may be able to capture Sallah; when he's in Ankarra, he may be able to dig for the temple there. Connecting specific locations to the enemy's actions makes more sense if it's a specific "person" that's executing the actions. But it may also be more attractive from a playability standpoint. The cubes don't exactly act as a deterrent to actions -- if you need to visit Alexandretta to get the Grail Diary, you're going to go whether there are 3 cubes there or 5 or 0. But if there's an operative there, you may hasten your trip there (if you're afraid of the theme card being kidnapped) or delay it (if you're worried the operative will cause you some harm, whatever that might be). These considerations come more easily to the forefront of your mind if the operative is a pawn on the board, and the powers they possess may be easier to incorporate into your plans if you see explicitly where it can be executed.
I'd like to think more about this possibility; it's a bit of a departure but it's not completely different. It's simply a way to execute some of the same functionality we've always had, but in a different way. And most of the other changes are minor and will be easy enough to try.
I doubt we'll play the game again at today's Spielbany, but hopefully I'll get a chance to solo test some options for these systems soon, and will report back on how they go!