The Death of Prism

Dave Berlin Playtesting 5 Comments

This is part 0 of a series about our new game, The Council of Adventurers. I’m documenting the development of this game in order to keep myself honest about its prospects for publication, and to share some mistakes I’ve made with others on the same journey. This first post is about the death (at least shelving) of our last game in development, Prism.

Part 0: The Death of Prism
Part 1: Starting fresh but with constraints

When I heard that a publisher wanted to meet with me to get a demo of our wizard themed, mostly co-op adventure built around the idea of a prisoner’s dilemma, I was more nervous than excited. I had just changed the “finding a portal” mechanic and its effects had rippled throughout the game: I had to put keys on hexes, in the Interrogation deck, even on Loot cards. And I had just finished and reprinted all of our hexes in preparation for Unpub Mini SD Summer 2016 and hadn’t tested it yet. The game was still raw from shedding its last skin, but this was a good opportunity. If nothing else, a chance to practice my pitch.

I was late getting to our meeting spot–a dive bar crossed with your friend’s modest game collection–but luckily so was he. I won’t say who The Publisher was (he may have reasons to stay anonymous) but suffice to say we didn’t know each other and he had never played Prism before. I didn’t know if he was interested in publishing it, but the elevator pitch and theme seemed to interest him enough to meet. I started to pull out some of the components while I waited for him to arrive.

In hindsight it’s painfully obvious that Prism wasn’t converging. I struggled to find a way to balance the game, to make it so the players and the game were equally matched. I wanted a board that could change every game, but that made it incredibly hard to balance.

Don’t get me wrong: unlike many other games I’ve made, Prism was actually fun to play. Shelving it wasn’t the easy decision I’ve had with other games, where people play it and go, “Yeah, that’s a game, but it’s not fun.” Quite the opposite. Despite all the struggles over two years of development, it still consistently earned good marks for fun. I even ran into an old playtester at a gaming convention who recognized me, remembered the game, and told me it was fun. And that’s what blinded me to all the problems.

Being fun is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good game.

The Publisher and I played a game in which nearly everything went wrong. I grabbed too many Interrogation cards, because it’s too complex to calculate the right number (think about that for a second), which meant there was no time pressure to finish the game. There was an energy deficit, only exacerbated by the new hexes I put in where you could invest energy to get other things. I was nervous about not getting enough keys, so I put too many in the deck and then we got them way too early. Once we got our third key The Publisher used a spell to pull me to his hex, and then tried to summon the Portal.

“We aren’t ready to fight the Guardian,” I balked. So we rolled that back and leveled up a few more turns, and then summoned the Portal again. We were vanquished, quite handily I might add. The combat mechanic fell flat: we were rolling too many dice, taking too long to count hits and subtract blocks and resolve the whole thing. The new Guardian powers were too strong and it wasn’t close. I didn’t even know what was supposed to happen next: did a Portal with an activated Guardian stay open for another round, or did we have to find three new keys to summon another?

He had had enough, and what he essentially told me was: “This game is unpublishable.” Here’s my summary of what he described as the major problems:

  1. I failed to consider the cost to manufacture the game: with 60 hexes, nearly 40 custom dice, and lots of other bits, he estimated it would be an $80 game at retail. He said the 40 custom dice were an immediate red flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that price tag, but this wasn’t an $80 experience. The depth of strategy wasn’t there. The beautiful miniatures weren’t there. The replayability wasn’t there. So there was no way to justify that price tag. Had I considered what those dice would cost ($1K per mold, then 18 cents a unit)? Did I know that if game components had a dollar menu, I could either pick 5 custom dice or an entire deck of cards?
  2. I failed to consider my target market: who exactly was I trying to sell this game to? And what would that target market be willing to pay for the game? And how does that match up with the estimated price? The Publisher couldn’t figure out who would play it: the strategy wasn’t there for hardcore strategy gamers; the price wasn’t there for casual gamers; the elegance and simplicity were missing for gateway gamers. Outside of my carefully constructed and hosted playtests, it would be hard to find real fans.
  3. I failed to focus on strategy and replayability: this may be a general problem with co-ops, but Prism has only one strategy: move around, uncover hexes, collect energy, defer the final battle as long as possible. There are tactics, sure, but no strategic decisions. The randomness of uncovering hexes means you don’t make as many decisions. Things happen to you and you react. And once you’ve seen all the hexes, there’s nothing left to uncover about the game. Because I designed the game such that you could build any map, it meant I had to make the hexes pretty independent. And the lack of interesting combinations of hexes was symptomatic of the replayability problem. Once you fought a given monster, there was nothing interesting about that monster the next time.
  4. I failed to put the player in control: in addition to the aforementioned problem of moving to hexes without knowing what you’ll get (the hex lottery), there were other problems of player agency. The most egregious example is putting the player in a situation where they can call a Guardian but really have no business doing so. Not only is it bad to allow the player to make a decision to screw themselves over so badly, but there was no way for The Publisher to even know that he was making a terrible mistake. Before, when Portals were something in level 4 hexes, you were forced to fight your way through some pretty nasty bad guys and level up. With the new mechanism, you can get lucky finding keys and end up facing a Guardian that you’ll have zero chance of beating.
  5. I failed to constrain my design and stick to the theme and mission statement: there were so many mechanics in the game that I started to have to use a smaller font on the sell sheet. Some of these mechanics were really interesting and worthy of remaining, but why were the less interesting mechanics still there? The symbols on the Loot cards were swords and shields, which you accumulated to increase your attack and defense power. But this brought up some awkward questions: why do wizards have swords and shields? Are they knights or wizards? And why, when you are building your tableau, do you end up with six swords? Who can even carry (let alone fight with) six swords?

The Publisher didn’t hate everything about the game, and was generous to point out what he liked. Specifically, he liked the tableau-building mechanic on the player boards. I knew this, though, because nearly every person who’s ever played Prism has mentioned that. So this was his suggestion at the end of this conversation:

Find the core of this game, the mechanic that everyone loves, and build a new game around that.

I thanked him and he left. I cleaned up the game, got in my car, and headed home. I was in shock for the drive home. I thought about the hundreds or thousands of hours we put into the game. How we took it to Gen Con and played in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. About that playtester who remembered it and said he enjoyed it. I tried to figure out how this was such a great game in my mind but didn’t translate to the final experience. I knew there were balance problems, maybe some minor mechanics that needed tweaking. But I drank my own kool-aid and had pictured it on store shelves. I did the game designer equivalent of an NFL player turning toward the goal line before actually catching the ball.

And it’s not like I felt that The Publisher was telling me his opinion, and I could just go to the next publisher and get a different one. As far as I could tell, these were basic facts about the game. Prism wasn’t publishable, not in its current form anyway. And I couldn’t see a way to salvage it.

The next day was a Saturday, exactly two weeks before Unpub Mini, where I was scheduled to run Prism. In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about what we decided to do about this playtest and our plan for Unpub Mini.


Prism Components

Read Part 1: Starting fresh but with constraints

Comments 5

  1. Wow! Great article, Dave! You said the things that I felt like I was tripping over in a succinct and helpful way for other people to learn. I’m happy to hear you are moving forward with what felt like the best part of Prism and detailing your adventure. I look forward to reading this series of articles and playing the new game the next time I’m in San Diego.

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  2. Have just stumbled across your blog. Some great posts here which, as a board game designer and playtester, I thought were very perceptive. Also usefully thought-provoking as I’m at the stage of considering whether to publish some of my own games more widely.

    I thought this was a brave and generous post. Its seldom easy to admit to failings, so its great to see you learning from failure, treating it positively and sharing your lessons with others. It’s good that you realised Prism was unpublishable in its current form before putting more effort and money into it.

    I think it can be very hard as a designer to distance yourself enough from a game you’ve invested lots of emotional and creative energy in to step back and really listen to feedback from playtesters. That’s why its always worth getting as much variety as possible from playtesting, in different environments, including getting people to try the game when you yourself aren’t around.

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      Thanks for the kind words Dave. Hope you find the right path for your games.

      My suggestion: make friends with a publisher. They have insight you won’t get from playtesters or even other designers. But definitely get your games out there, and like you said, as much variety of feedback as possible.

  3. Pingback: Starting fresh but with constraints | Galvanized Studios

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