Finding the balance… a lesson in not overwhelming your audience

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Finding the balance… a lesson in not overwhelming your audience

Sungem Run is a deduction game for two to eight players that uses dice manipulation. It is the first game in the Rise of the Occulites series of games that features all ten Occulites Tribes as well as the Luftles and Podmothine. It will be Darwin Games’ next release later in the year.

Sungem Run has been in development for many years now, has seen many playtesters from many different walks of life and has seen many changes across the years. I thought that I would write a little bit about what Shae and I have learned over the years about finding the balance in a particular design. When is it too much and when is it not enough? What if the too much is really cool to some people, but not to others? When do you know when your design is complete and ready to publish?

Initial conception

I came up with the idea of Sungem Run one afternoon after getting hit with what I like to call ‘a mechanism flash’. This is where out of the blue, for no particular reason, an idea for a game just pops into my mind. If I don’t write it down or work on it immediately, it often evaporates back into the ether. But if I get it written down, or start work on it immediately then it often develops into physical prototype pretty quickly. This was the case with Sungem Run. I had the first playable prototype created within two hours and we were playing it with family and friends by that night. Of course, I’ve had many of these that self combust, or just don’t work in real life, but Sungem Run did. It worked well… and it was a lot of fun! It started life with 9 dice, 12 cards and a bunch of ‘Sungem tokens’ (aka crystals poached from an unplayed Ascension box).

sungem-run-sample-image

The first Sungem Run prototype being play tested at our old house with friends.

Eight Tribes were included (Palaudis, Hydris, Floris, Ignis, Nimbus, Silicus, Tundris and Luftles), but all played exactly the same. Win conditions were be the last Tribe standing, so it had player elimination, but games were fast so no one minded. The game got played and played and played by lots and lots of people in lots and lots of places. The core was solid. It was time to see what the design space would allow…

Getting carried away

Over the next few years, Shae and I gradually started to expand the game. We added in several other layers of depth to the game and it went from being a fast, smooth and streamlined game into a deeper, but denser and more complicated one. This worked by bolting anywhere from one to sixteen modules onto the game. As we had been playing it for the last few years, this depth and complication was initially no problem for us and our core playtest groups, but there was a lesson for us to learn…

Some of the modules included:

Nymphlet module, Extra Tribe module, Tribal Abilities module, Podmothine Player module, Multiple Luftle Tribes module, Vengeance module, Alliance module, Sudden death module, Tribal members module, Combat module, Events module, Locations module and many others.

All of a sudden, we discovered that we had gone too far. The game was no longer a fast, simple, streamlined deduction game with dice. It all of a sudden included options for attacking other Tribe members, different locations, random events, ways for players to be the Podmothine. After writing the rulebook, the game was a jumbled mess. Shae wisely told me to stop getting carried away, take a step back and make some tough decisions. We had to pare back the game to its basics. Pare it back to its core and then see which modules added lots of value, without taking away from the overall experience. In short, we needed to pare it back to the best game that it could be without overwhelming new players.

An Event card that was only used with the Tribal Members and Combat modules...

An Event card that was only used with the Tribal Members and Combat modules…

This was a difficult and often heartbreaking journey over the last year or so. It was made even clearer to us when our feedback started to come back as “we didn’t know what to include or where to start.” In fact it has been a lesson that has informed the way we now design games and has heavily informed our decision to revisit many of our existing designs (which are now much, much stronger for the experience).

Making the tough choices

Many of the modules were just discarded as they added only small value compared to the complications or fiddliness they introduced. Some were removed because they were confusing to new players and would make it difficult to get started with the game, some were modified and kept and others were altered significantly and kept as possible expansion options down the line if players wanted ‘more’ later in the game’s life.

Based on feedback from publishers and external playtesting, we implemented a board (which you can see below this paragraph). This works on both an organisational level (for the dice groupings) and also on a thematic level (which is really important to us). With each die representing an Occulite, it does look like they are really conducting a Podmothine raid.

Sungem Run Board

Sungem Run Board

The second big change was to help guide players that didn’t really play in the spirit of the game or didn’t take any risks. Some players always chose to take only one Sungem in the Collection phase each round, regardless of how many dice they were with, or where they were. This kind of crashed the game a bit. Those players had no chance of winning as they wouldn’t have enough Sungems to make an Accusation or manipulate the dice in any way as to cause other players to be stuck with the Podmothine. So we needed a way to discourage that kind of play as it was detrimental to the fun and overall experience for the other players. So after several months of careful thinking the problem over and testing multiple different options, we implemented one of the coolest little additions that had done… Suspicion.

Anytime a player takes only one Sungem (through choice or by necessity), they must also take a Suspicion token. Each time the player does so, their suspicion grows and they will eventually be forced out of the game. For every two suspicion a player has, they take one less Sungem if collecting, or pay one more Sungem if paying. So players that constantly only took one Sungem, will eventually accumulate too much suspicion to continue. It allows players to do it on occasion, but does not allow them to abuse it.

What we ended up with is what we believe to be the very best iteration of Sungem Run. It is simple, yet deep. Fast, but full of decisions. We have fallen in love with the game all over again and we cannot wait to share it with you later in the year.

Palaudis Chief Grublic - Sungem Run Sample low res

We are currently doing one last round of external playtesting for Sungem Run while we gather quotes from different manufacturers. We will be ramping up for Darwin Games’ first solo Kickstarter launch later in the year and know that the delays over the last few years have resulted in a much stronger game. One that you will enjoy playing for many years with your family and friends. Going solo is a big thing for us at Darwin Games, but it allows us to interact directly with our customers and develop our Rise of the Occulites brand into the future.

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Cheers,
Ben and Shae Boersma

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