PaleoVet Design Diary 5: Playtesting PaleoVet

In the last Paleovet Design Diary, we talked about the finalization of the mechanics for the game. Today, we’re going to talk about playtesting Paleovet using the four phases of playtesting that we follow at Absurdist Productions. We shared more information on the four phases of playtesting last week.

We have been working on PaleoVet for roughly two years at this point, and in that time, we have playtested the various versions of the game over 200 times. We have the advantage of a local design group that has provided abundant opportunities to playtest the game allowing us to collect ample data to support every design decision we have made.

Proof of Concept

Will mentioned in the first two Design Diaries that he wanted to design a simple, light-hearted, and easy to learn game. The game would involve rolling dice to cure dinosaurs represented by cards along with a push-your-luck element.

His first version of the game was primarily hand-drawn on slips of paper inside card sleeves with some stickers stuck on standard dice. He used this proof of concept to see if the game was worth pursuing. Over three or four games, he knew people liked the idea of rolling dice to cure dinosaurs with the possibility of  getting more dice to roll. The game had enough fun elements to keep working on, but it also had some serious issues. The issues that we focused on primarily related to the balance and the players feeling that their decisions did not matter enough.

Mechanics Testing

Knowing that the concept of the game was fun, we moved into the mechanics testing phase. Over the last two years, PaleoVet has had many mechanics added and removed, taking it from the game Will described in his second Design Diary to the final game we have started to demo and share with reviewers.

When looking at my playtest data and notes, we have had seven major versions of the game starting from the proof of concept. We have robust notes and spreadsheets of data that we collected for each version and used to make design decisions. Utilizing our notes, we made a variety of changes to the game mechanics.

A few of the most significant mechanics changes for the game were the dinosaur abilities, the addition of the upgrade cards, and maybe biggest of all was the end game trigger.

Dinosaur Abilities

We added the dinosaur abilities early on to make each dinosaur feel unique and give the players more decision-making space. They also gave players more control over their play style. Over several months, we went through multiple iterations of these abilities, adding and removing them as we looked at how they impacted balance and how much players used them. The goal We added the dinosaur abilities fairly early on to make each dinosaur feel unique and give the players more decision-making space. This also gave players more control over their play style. Over several months we went through multiple iterations of these abilities, adding and removing them as we looked at how they impacted balance and how much players used them. The goal was to have a list that players found fun and useful while at the same time making sure none of them gave too much of an advantage.

Upgrade Cards

The upgrade card mechanic grew out of this testing. We realized that some abilities did not work or were unbalanced when on the dinosaurs themselves but were still fun and could be better balanced if provided differently. We came up with many abilities based on playtester suggestions, though not every suggestion made it into the game and many ended up in a different form than initially proposed. Player suggestions are always useful, but testing is necessary to ensure they do not unbalance the game.

Ending the Game

When thinking about the end game trigger for the game, our goal was to keep the game under an hour even at the max player count and make the trigger predictable and straightforward. We went through multiple versions, from simply running out the entire deck to a round tracker, then back to the deck but with a special card that triggered the final round. We ended up going with a variation of running out the deck but splitting it into multiple piles. This change gave players complete control over the game length as they could end it or keep it going based on drawing the last card of any deck.

We collected and compared the player count for each version versus the number of dinosaur cards used and the total playtime. We also looked at how players felt about the game and the end-game trigger. The Round Tracker worked okay, but players kept forgetting to move it between rounds. Running out the deck was okay but sometimes left players feeling like they didn’t have control. Using the multiple piles solved these problems and also added a little more tension to the game as players chose dinosaurs each round and thought about how much time they would have to cure them before the end.

Balance Testing

As we worked on PaleoVet we put together a spreadsheet to work out our initial balance. We used several different variables and formulas to balance things. As a base, we looked at:

  • the sleep values
  • the number of treatment icons
  • diet
  • base victory point values

We used these to create a baseline balance of all dinosaurs against each other. Then we adjusted that value based on the abilities given to each dinosaur. We further adjusted different variables up or down depending on how powerful each ability was. In some cases, we gave a dinosaur multiple ability effects.

While I mentioned seven versions in the mechanic’s section, we had a dozen or more different variations of the dino cards in each version as part of balance testing. We used these to see which abilities worked best, swapping cards out between games to see how they changed our numbers. We collected data points like:

  • final scores
  • the number of dinosaurs cured
  • which dinosaurs players cured
  • the number eaten by carnivores
  • and how the players felt about the abilities

For one example, there was a point where no one was bothering to go after the Carnotarus because they did not feel this card was worth it compared to other options. So we added the effect where it gives a free upgrade token as a bonus.

Once we added the upgrade cards to the game we went through a similar cycle. Swapping out cards between games to test different variations of abilities and combinations of cards to see their impact on the games balance.

Unguided Playtesting

Currently, we are in the final phase of testing. We now find people who have never played the game, hand them the box, and then watch them play. It’s an exciting, and sometimes painful, time watching people play the game without our guidance. Recently we watched a player break the rule about the total number of dice allowed, even though it was in the rules. The underlying issue was simply that the rule wasn’t where they expected it to be—leading to a layout change. We’ve also seen players play the phases in the wrong order, so we added a detailed reference to the back of the book as a supplement to the reference cards.

With each game played, we take a lot of notes. We are reaching the point where the changes in the rule book are becoming fewer each time. Still, we will likely keep testing and revising right up to the minute we send the game to manufacturing because we want it to be as close to perfect as possible. 

After all, the rules really are the game, and we want people to enjoy and love this game as much as we do.

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