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Living the Dream 3.0: Stumbles, Bumbles & Tribulations

Chad Ellis

February, 2005

I don't want constructive criticism. It's all I can do to put up with constructive praise.

some rather honest individual, unknown

In previous articles [Living the Dream 1.0, Living the Dream 2.0] I've talked a bit about the necessity of word-of-mouth for generating game sales. It's a necessary tool, because gamers are oversupplied with new games to try out and are thus very selective—a shiny advertisement isn't likely to sway them. It's also a convenient tool because there are a number of well-known and rather prolific game reviewers out there, many of whom will test and review your game if you send them a copy. But it's also a problematic tool, because for inexplicable reasons those reviewers won't always like your game.

If you're approaching the game business with any sense at all, you're only publishing games you think are outstanding. They should be thoroughly playtested and have received good rankings from your playtesters, including playtesters that bear you no love. Given that base of confidence and the natural optimism all entrepreneurs seem to have, it isn't long before you begin to imagine that your game is going to win the Spiel des Jahres. Being the conservative, rational person that I am, I didn't fall into this trap with Succession, my first game. I only thought it would get nominated.

The early feedback for Succession was great. A little over sixty people played it at its GenCon launch (a $1,000 tournament helps bring in the "let's try a new game" crowd), and almost everyone liked it. Quite a few of them raved about it, and towards the end of the weekend we were really excited. Then the feedback on Boardgamegeek started showing up: 8s and 9s. Tom Vasel wrote a positive review. Greg Schloesser was about to playtest it and I was sure he'd absolutely love it—after all, he specifically likes negotiation games!

Since then I've come down to Earth a bit. While most games of Succession take about an hour and the vast majority take less than two, Greg's first game was a marathon three and a half hours—which seriously reduced his enjoyment. He's indicated that he plans to give it another try, but my hopes for a rave review are modest to say the least. Meanwhile, some people on Boardgamegeek don't like it either! While the overall response from both players and reviewers has been positive and personally gratifying, it's been in the "normal" range of life, not a made-for-TV movie.

Bad reviews are going to happen. No matter how good your game is, someone out there will hate it. Consider the following comments from Boardgamegeek:

"...[I]t plays the same almost every time, it is easy to get screwed early in the game, there is virtually no interaction between players (except shouting; take that tile or he will get it thus...), and the mechanisms has been seen in both Princes of Florence and Ohne Furst und Adel (Citadels) before. Boring, boring..."

"This game sucks."

"I just sit and wonder as I've played, 'When is this going to get fun?'"

These are comments about Puerto Rico, BoardGameGeek's highest-rated game. You can find similar comments about any great game.

So brace yourself. Some people won't like your game and they won't hesitate to say so. It may be that it isn't their type of game, or that it played out unusually badly when they played it, or they may simply have missed what makes it good. Don't take them personally—if you do, you can't benefit from them.

That's right, benefit. It's easy to benefit from rave reviews, but you can take advantage of negative ones, too. Here are my main steps to doing so.

Understand the Complaints

Until you know why people don't like something, there's not much you can do about it.

Greg and Tom also had a mediocre-to-poor reaction to Space Station Assault, with both of them reaching the conclusion that there just wasn't enough depth. Greg's biggest complaint was that there wasn't much strategy—you just try to blow up the enemy space station. From his session report:

"[T]he space station is worth 60 points, so destroying your enemy's station wins you the game. Ships have victory point values ranging from 1 - 4, so it would take a long, long time to accumulate enough victory points by concentrating on destroying ships. Coupled with the fact that it seems very difficult to adequately defend your station, the preferred strategy appears to be an all-out assault against your opponent's station. That revelation sapped much of the potential appeal from the game."

Tom Vasel came to the same conclusion, going so far as to say, "...all we did was plop ships down directly next to the opponent's space station and fire."

Evaluate the Complaints

Once you understand what the complaints are, you need to evaluate them. Are they "horses for courses" complaints, like someone who doesn't like this type of game? Did they have an atypical experience? Have they identified a flaw you didn't know your game had?

Sometimes you may feel that a complaint is just wrong. With Space Station Assault, this happened twice! Shannon Appelcline said that the game took about 45 minutes, rather than the 15-30 we advertised on the box, and that his 3-star rating would have been higher if the game were as short as we claimed. His was the first "name" review to come out on Space Station Assault and when I read it I was shocked. I'd played some long games but didn't think any of them had lasted that long. I sat down and did some math and double-checked with Rob and our regular playtesters. None of us could believe it.

When more reviews started coming out referring to Space Station Assault as fast-paced or a good quick filler, I felt vindicated. But I still kept an eye out as I watched new people play the game, and found that fifteen-minute games were quite rare and some games did go over the half-hour mark. And just recently Marc Shayed of said that their playtesting experience yielded a play time of 25-45 minutes. (Happily, he still gave the game a great review.)

In hindsight, I have to conclude that Shannon and Marc's complaint is justified and that the set of games that led us to say 15-30 minutes were biased low. Perhaps it was our experience with the game but it's clear that some people will spend longer playing it than we intended for the game to last.

Now let's look at the complain that Space Station Assault really only has one strategy—blowing up the opponent's space station. It's easy to see why this could be the case. Each player's space station is worth 60 victory points, which is what you need to win, but only takes 25 points of damage to destroy. Meanwhile, the individual ships are worth 1-4 victory points each and most of them take as much damage to destroy as they are worth in victory points. Thus, the same goal (60 points) can be achieved by doing 25 points of damage to a space station or more than twice that amount to the enemy fleet.

In this case, however, I believe that Greg and Tom are wrong. I've played countless games of Space Station Assault and most of the time I win (or lose) by fleet attrition. So why the discrepancy? I think it boils down to a common problem in two-player abstract games: defense is harder than attack. This is partly because the initiative is so important in almost any struggle (the number one rule of the military is seize and retain the initiative), but it is especially true for beginners at any game.

When I was just starting out at Chess I played a game against an older boy. He advanced his King's pawn and I did the same. Then he brought out his queen (to h5). I couldn't just leave it there, so naturally I attacked it, by advancing a pawn to g6. He then took my undefended King's pawn, putting me in check and attacking my rook through the diagonal I had opened up on the previous move.

Gradually, as I got better, I learned to defend my pawn first and then to chase his Queen away by developing a Knight. Today I'm an "expert" at Chess and through careful defense was able to hold former world champion Boris Spassky to a draw. (OK, it was in an exhibition match in which he played 30 people simultaneously, but I'm still proud of it!) But those defensive skills took years and countless hours to build up.

Now, I'm not claiming Space Station Assault is the equivalent of Chess. But it is definitely a game in which defensive skills take time to learn. I've watched many beginners blow up the ship that's attacking their station only to see a new one take its place until at some point they are five ships ahead but their station has taken so much damage that they can't possibly save it.

Defending your station requires subtlety. You have to block access points—sometimes with your opponent's ships! You have to use uneven ship distribution in each hand to estimate your best chances for being able to play two or more ships in a row, so you can kill a ship and then occupy its space next to your station. You have to know when to take a purely defensive posture even when it means not having one of your most powerful ships fire this wave. If you understand such strategies you won't be beaten by someone whose strategy is to "plop ships down directly next to the opponent's space station and fire." If you don't, you're likely to lose without really knowing why.

Own the Problem

Let's assume for the moment that I'm right and that Greg and Tom have missed some depth in Space Station Assault. Let's be optimistic and assume that if they played another five or six games they would realize that they kept finding new defensive tricks and that they would feel the game was richer with each play.

I'm still the guy with the problem.

It's not just that the reviews aren't likely to inspire someone to buy my company's game. It's that other people are just as likely to miss that depth. If a person plays once or twice and thinks, "Nice art but the game is too simplistic for me," they aren't going to buy the game and they certainly aren't going to recommend it to a friend.

Some "false" complaints are statistical flukes. If you've run twenty games with new players with most finishing in an hour, you can feel comfortable saying "that's rare" when you read a complaint that your game took three and a half hours to play. But there's every reason to think that other people who play Space Station Assault could reach the same conclusion Greg and Tom did and never play it again—in which case it doesn't matter what would have happened if they did play more.

Solve the Problem

This isn't always so easy. Quite often you can't solve the problem completely—Greg and Tom have far too many games on their plates for me to hope that I can convince them to keep playing a game they find shallow just because I (the publisher) think it's deep. They don't know me and I live a thousand miles from Greg and a million miles from Tom, so it's not like I can easily pop by their next gaming session! But I can still try to solve the problem going forward so that fewer people get the same impression.

One method is with our demo program. Now that we know one of the dangers, I make sure our demo masters know about it so they can show some of the defensive maneuvers when they teach the game. Once you've had someone use your own ship to defend their station and end a wave with six healthy ships to your three, you're less likely to think the only strategy is an all-out blitz on the enemy station.

We're also going to put our money where our mouth is. At Origins or GenCon (and quite possibly at both) we plan to hold a series of challenge matches where we'll play Space Station Assault against all comers. Anyone who beats us will walk away with a prize, probably $50 or $100. My guess is if we play 20 games over the weekend we'll lose one or two, and hopefully that will cause people to take a second look at Space Station Assault's strategic depth.

We're taking a similar step when demonstrating Succession. While the overall response to the game has been good, it is clear that some people flat-out hate negotiation games. As Marc Shayed said in his review, "Although I found it quite enjoyable, and so did most of my play-testers, there were some who simply did not connect with the game." The extent of this problem was actually a bit of a surprise to me, since the response from our playtesters was almost universally positive on Succession, moreso than for any other game we tested. But while our sample size was large in individual terms, it may not have been large enough if the right "unit" is groups of gamers. And, since one person who hates negotiation games can take the fun out of the game for everyone, it's important to do a simple screening of demo candidates. Instead of asking, "Would you like to learn a new German-style board game," I have to make sure that we let people know up front that it's a game with lots of negotiations and deals.

I'm also addressing the time issue with Space Station Assault. On our website, as well as at Boardgamegeek and other websites that have reviewed it, I talk about the defense issue and how new players may find that destroying 60 points of enemy ships is too hard until they've learned how to defend their station. A simple solution is to reduce the number of victory points needed to win. At 45 victory points the Space Station isn't an attractive target at all, and at 50-55 I think the two victory paths will feel balanced for most new players.

Another part of solving the problem is changing whatever part of your own processes led to the problem in the first place. We're more disciplined now about clocking our playtest sessions and will run games with new groups before finalizing our "time to play" estimates. And if we have a game that we want to last 15-30 minutes and it's taking some people up to 45, we'll take that as a serious design issue and solve it before launching the game. We'll also be more aware of the potential problem that two victory paths can be balanced among experts but not among beginners. If that looks like a problem, we'll know in advance and may be able to address it with strategy tips or simple modifications (e.g. beginners playing to 50 victory points in Space Station Assault).

When you make a game (or write a book or perform in a play) you are bringing your own creativity to life. Somewhere inside you can't help hoping and even expecting that everyone else will love your creation as much as you do. Every time I get an email from someone who loves Succession it makes me happy the entire day. But just as important to having a company success is absorbing the negative responses, understanding and learning from them and owning the problems that caused them.

- Chad Ellis

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