Moonflight Development: Learning Lessons
Bad playtests are the ones when nothing goes wrong. I'm happy where Moonflight is right now as a game still developing. The Jack O' Clay and Bones deck is in a very final form and when I play the game solo it makes good sense, is filled with interesting choices and satisfying moments. The problem is I know how its "meant" to be played. Now every game has a right and a wrong way to play it, hopefully a lot of the right ways and some fun wrong ways, but every game can be ruined by playing it wrongly. As a designer my job is to make it clear what the wrong path is so that players don't walk down it accidentally and to make unfun wrong paths unrewarding so that competitive players don't go down them intentionally. I'm not a massively competitive player of deck or deck builder games, I play them looking for patterns and combination moments, meaning that I play Moonflight in solo play tests a very specific way. Happily I have two playtesters who are capable, experienced and competitive when it comes to deck building and play Moonflight very differently. The play experience when they play Moonflight is fine, but its not what I intended players to find in the game, so a redesign was needed.
In a traditional deck builder there is very little reason not to buy cards when you have the chance. Its possible to dilute a deck's engine but purchases that strengthen the engine are always right. In Moonflight every card you purchase after your engine is running and you have secured your scoring cards is just another card you need to trash later on. There needs to be an excess of certain cards available to regulate the probability of their occurrence in the game's market place. The upshot of this is that if you play Moonflight as a totally traditional deck builder you increase its play time and extend some unfun parts of the game. I don't want to remove over building for players that enjoy it or that might turn it into an effective tactic but I do want to guide players away from it. The problem is that the current game end condition, that triggers when a player attempts to draw and cannot, strongly benefits card drawing over-builds. The game is "meant" to end with players carefully trashing down their decks with a satisfying and intricate un-building engine, not because a player managed to draw their entire deck. I considered removing the generic drawing cards but they help balance a random market place, offer options, assist a sense of active dynamics and just feel like they should be there. Instead I changed the game end conditions, so the game ends when draw and discard piles are empty after the clean up phase. Players can still buy a large dynamic deck but victory can only be achieved by intelligent engagement with your trashing engine. Hopefully players will realise that before experiencing too many dragging matches. I'm including several mentions of the strategy in the rules which hopefully won't come across as heavy handed.
On a secondary note, the Historian Jack is onto his fourth name change. I build games mechanics first, which means I often spend longer on themes because they come less naturally. Mike Hutchinson (Gaslands designer) tends to decide what a rules name is then figures out what it does, while I generally write a rule that does something interesting with the mechanics of the game then try to name it. I consider theme to exist within the mechanics rather than be laid on top of them. So the Jack O' Legacy and Loss became Learn and Covet, then Prophecy and Memory and is now Words and Names, as the deck evolves it indicates the name.
Along with the name change Jack O' Words and Names has had some ability changes. This has been nerve wracking since Clay and Bones was playing how I wanted it to and Words and Names was balanced to it. The problem is that balance isn't the same as fun and while Words and Names was fun and dynamic in the first half of the game he lost a lot of interest after the turn, so, back to the playtesting table.
Its odd how many games design swords are proverbially double edged. Bringing in a deck builder structure earns me both a good deal of rules complexity and hopefully an extended audience. However, the strategy Moonflight demands you adopt is quite unnatural for a deck builder fan, and I hope that disjoint won't alienate players too much. Since the changes from a standard deck builder are the central point of the game they're staying either way I just hope that repeatedly pointing out the differences won't come across as either patronizing or annoying.
The Jack O' Clay and Bones is good and set. Words and Names is competitive, but what wins for him is not what's fun with him so he's gone back down to basics for a re-write. The new version might be less balanced and more tricky but by god, it'll be more fun.