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Play Testing Recap

Pizza from Dimo's. (photo stolen from the internet)

On Thursday night, my friends Brian Parisi and Aaron Schmidt met me at Dimo's Pizza here in Chicago to eat pizza, roll some dice, and discuss our various projects that we were working on. Brian has been my most regular play tester and he's a bit of a rules tinker himself with some rule sets he's been dabbling with.  Aaron is a sculptor currently working on Wreck-Age models for Hyacinth Games. In addition, I long ago noticed that he enjoys analyzing and discussing game mechanics as much as he enjoys playing games. This was going to be Aaron's first time playing Broken Contract and I was really curious what he'd have to say.

I had intended to run a new scenario I had concocted weeks ago that integrated a bunch of new design elements focusing on the robust collection of Stats characters have. I got home from work and I discovered I had given most of my board sections to my graphic designer to scan and layer up with textures and lighting effects. He wouldn't be attending, so I had to create something on the fly with what I had, incorporating some of the elements I wanted to play test. This is what I came up with:

Dramatic recreation in my living room on a table too small to place character cards or any other game components.

This scenario began with 5 Breakers huddled in a mine intersection, with 3 Prods bearing down on them. The Breakers had knowledge of the code to the door to the right that could lead them into a potentially safer escape corridor. The criminal they had in their midst had led them to believe there was a hidden passage they could access from that tunnel, represented by the black piece of cardstock. It leads to a forgotten tunnel that was sometimes used to smuggle contraband into the mines. 

This overview was detailed to Aaron and Brian and we jumped right into the game. The Prods and three of the Breakers moved toward each other while the Breaker character who had the best chance of making the Intellect Check to recall the code and open the door rolled a 6 and the hydraulics were set in motion. Nells, the Breaker sneak, got into position to crawl under the door as it opened.

A brawl ensued between the Breakers holding off the Prods and the pair of Breakers with the better Brain Stats moved into the corridor to move some ore carts and search for the secret passage, which after a few Perception Checks they finally found. With the passage open, they began crawling into the tunnel, at that point leaving behind their comrades to fight the guards. It being a weeknight, we called the game at 10PM not knowing the ultimate outcome. 

Aaron had taken notes and we all briefly discussed them. I'm going to share them with you all because I'm a big fan of design discussion and how game design decisions come to be.

Aaron's actual notes from play testing.
Each heading is one of Aaron's notes followed with notes on what we discussed and what I've reflected on since then:

- Scenarios Could Be More Cinematic

This particular scenario was fun and evocative, but could have used some extra layers of detail to prevent the two sides getting straight into combat and increase both options and tension. When I had been dabbling with the scenario before heading to play testing I had added an alarm that could be sounded to bring a Restraint Drone on the board on the following turn, but I chose not to include it because I was concerned about balance. Brian suggested adding another door that wasn't on hydraulics, (note: scenarios thus far have all used slow moving doors for those Indiana Jones moments)  that could be dropped by using an action to hit a button. Then that button could be used to either drop the door on someone crossing the threshold or to create a turn or two of separation as the door was reopened. Another idea thrown in was adding a sympathetic (or apathetic?) Prod that could be bribed to look the other way. All of these are great cinematic ideas that could have a place in this scenario or others. 'Get Kellerman', a scenario I've mentioned before, which involves trying to convince a Progen character to break with them, even though the Progens don't have it quite as bad as the rest of the Tracted. This made me feel like I'm on the right track with trying to build layered scenarios with more depth.

This "play aid" is an Actions and Interruptions list for players to consult during play testing. However, it is horribly outdated. (I made it in April?) Some of these Actions and Interruptions have new names, have been replaced, or have been dropped. Not to mention new ones have been added. Its time for an updated sheet.

- Some Actions and Fumbles Could Be Sub-Elements of Actions/Events

Before we started the game, I handed Aaron a list of possible Actions and he noted that it was a little overwhelming and some of them seemed very situational, which they are. He also noted though, as he started to play, that he didn't want to see any of them go, but he felt some of them could be scenario specific or that they could be rolled into groupings. After reflecting on this, I agree some of them could be scenario specific, but rather than rolling some of them together, I think by organizing them into a Quick Start type selection of "core actions" and then following it with a broader list with descriptions might make this less of a barrier since your basic move/shoot/fight will be highlighted so someone new to the game can get up and rolling. Under this topic we briefly discussed the idea of putting the scenario specific actions on cards (like the Equipment and Initiative cards) so that they are standardized and then don't have to be fully described in each scenario. Instead the card could be referenced by name and you can set it on the table for reference while playing. I think this idea has promise and I'll explore it further.

Prototype Character Stat Card with tokens to mark Actions, Wounds, Equipment, Initiative Order, and whether they have a Re-Roll. Graphic design by Sam Alcarez.

- Additional Action Card

Currently, the Initiative Deck has a Re-Roll card that can be pulled at random during the Initiative Draw at the start of the Turn. Aaron's suggestion was to add a card that offered an Additional Action, so that rather than a Re-Roll a Character just gets a surge of adrenaline. The idea of just allowing the Re-Roll card to be swapped for an Additional Action was also discussed, and I think these are both excellent ideas and they will be implemented in some way.

- Initiative Roll Off For Interruptions - Some Characters Could Have a Speed Bonus (Agility)

The idea of comparing Agility Stats to see if you can get off an Action before an Interruption I think would add an additional layer of complexity that I'm trying to avoid. Brian, however, commented that giving a Character a Skill that allowed them to react quicker than most would be a good addition and I agree.

- Focus Action

Aaron felt that the difficulty in performing Actions resulted in some Actions being repeated over and over again, particularly in combat where there are a lot of swings and misses. This could be relieved a little by adding a new Action called Focus. This new Action would allow a Character to spend an Action to get a +1 to that character's die roll on the next Check made. This would make things potentially more decisive. I think its worth play testing for sure and can add to the cinematic feel I'm shooting for and Brian commented that he thought it would be a good addition.

- Several Scenario Set (3): Stealth, Action, Puzzle

He wanted to see the scenarios grouped in 3's and for each one to focus on different play styles, where one scenario is about sneaking around, another is more combat oriented, and another is about solving a puzzle. Unbeknownst to Aaron, the existing structure is to have scenarios that lead into each other and group them into 3-4 Acts, to emulate the intro and three act structure of television programming, where an episode of Firefly or Cowboy Bebop follows an arc that tells a chapter in a much larger story. I'm glad we're on the same wavelength there as this was an area where I wasn't sure if others would share my love of narrative play.

Quite possibly the most drawn out fight scene ever filmed, courtesy of They Live.

- Dice Fight Feel Can Get Slow

This is a hard thing to balance. What Aaron is referring to is something I mentioned in the early play testing articles as "slap fighting" - where a combat drags on as both sides repeatedly swing at each other and miss. I still stand by this conceptually as instantaneous combat resolution is so "final." There is supposed to be a level of attachment to your characters, like in a RPG. There isn't the tension of the "give and take" you see in action movies if you have instantaneous resolution. Sure, you don't necessarily want them to feel like the fight scene in They Live, but you do want to have a little bit of rolling on the ground and struggling. I think the solution to this already exists within the rules and as a new player, he didn't have the know how to be more strategic with combat. There are ways to disrupt characters and force them to be at a major disadvantage with Actions like Throw Down, Push, and "Stand Down!", where you can deplete a Character's Actions to soften them up, or even knock them Prone. Hopefully, we'll play test together again so he can flex his strategic options a little more.

- Points Towards Success?

Aaron discussed systems where performing or not performing certain Actions could layer in bonuses on subsequent Actions. Unlike Focus, which would be a very deliberate way of earning a bonus to a die roll, he was discussing more of a veiled interplay. I like the idea of Focus as an Action, but relying heavily on these sort of rules interactions gets complicated, and the game is complicated enough as it is. For now I'm not going to dwell on this too much, but drawing off of the last couple of editions of 40K, I love them but found there were constantly hidden rules I frequently forget because they layered all over the place. I want to try and minimize that some. There is already a lot to remember.

Talla Kellerman, the Tracted Progen who would have a lot to offer a bunch of Breakers, but she'd have more to lose than the rest of them, so she has to be convinced to join up. 

- NPC Influence

This ties into the bribed guard referenced at the beginning of this list. Adding the idea of NPC's that can be swayed either way was already something I had started to integrate but seeing this suggestion makes me feel more confident in that decision.

Getting together with a couple of gamers for focused play testing netted a lot of ideas for thought. I think the session, being thrown together, didn't work out half bad and still gave me a lot of both insight and confirmation, which is great. What's also nice is that my pool of play testers continues to vary and expand which brings more feedback and ideas to the table. 

Thank you to Aaron and Brian for being supportive, coming out, playing a game, and giving thoughtful feedback. As always, I look forward to more gaming and discussion.

-Nick

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