Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Exodus - from testing to producing

I'm just going to pick up where I left and continue the story of Exodus...

The early design faults were remedied after the first few tests and it was time for Exodus: Proxima Centauri to face a tougher audience: gamers with experience and high expectation from a game aiming to be called an "empire-building game". Their reaction was also positive, I would even say better than I could have expected since most of the complaints were going towards the graphics of the game rather then the gameplay itself. (For the record, at that time the game had "art" made in PowerPoint.) Even the people who did not want to criticize were still providing valuable ideas, being excited to be part of the making. I don't want to get too melancholic, so I'll get back to the point. 
Ship upgrades
The intensive testing shifted the focus from finding design flaws to improving the ergonomics of the game. There were too many wooden pieces on the planets (resources and population), too many spaceships on the hexes, too many political decisions and so on. Also, the ten turns made the game way too long.

All these problems were quite easy to solve – it was happening over night, from one game to another – but the tougher playtesters are not the experienced gamers who find their way around shady rules, but the newbies who will complain about anything that is even remotely complicated to understand. I can say that the first game with Catan players was the trial of fire for Exodus

As soon as the game started, I was accused of being a communist. The players found the tax system – one that I was very proud of – too complex and punishing. I thought that they would destroy the game, complaining about anything and everything, but in fact, except for the ship blueprints, the feelings were overwhelmingly positive. I already knew about the "blueprints problem", putting parts on top of the ship design was just not good enough. One person sneezing could end an interesting game.

These encouraging results made us decide that the game was ready to be shown at gaming events. We had already scheduled LAGNA in Italy and the UK Games Expo in ... UK, so we had just a few months left to solve all the problems, to have a well-written rule book, and to make it look shiny with at least a few graphic details that would catch the eye. 
 
 
A three-player late night game

Late prototype blueprints
These months before the first convention were very intense. A typical week would include two playtests with different groups, analysis and consolidation of the feedback, and implementing changes. We also started working on the final graphics and with the progress of the graphic design came along a great deal of printing, gluing and cutting. It took the team one month to resolve all the issues listed above. Agnieszka came up with the idea of inserting the upgrades in the ships' blueprints, we decreased the number of turns to seven, and we wrote optional rules for short, long and combat-intensive games.

By the end of the testing period, the political decision diversified and were effectively interacting with the other parts of the game, eliminating the feeling that they were just a "side dish" that people could easily ignore without further consequences. On the contrary, some of our testers found this to be the most tense part of the game.

From the technology pool, we chose 28 which were the most relevant and preserved the rest for a possible expansion. Together with the number of turns we also reduced the amount of resources on each planet to a maximum of five, a number which made the initial setup not so scary. There were a lot of other small things that we worked on and in the end, in late May 2012 we had a working prototype ready to be shown in public.

I did mention earlier that the story of the Exodus universe went further than the Proxima Centauri game. By this moment, I had already developed a plan and initial sketches of a trilogy of games, provided that Exodus: Proxima Centauri would be a success – but this is a story for another time.

The Final Steps

Finalizing the rules meant asking the help of a Canadian friend. No one in our team is a native English speaker and we needed a critical eye with amazing language skills. It took five revisions to finally have a rule book that we could be proud of.

I think that one of the most difficult aspects of life for an engineer is to explain to an artist what he needs and to find understanding. There I was, just before the UK Games Expo with a game ready to go and I was hoping for some nice-looking art for the prototype I was going to show the world. I have to tell you: It was a long way from the prototype to what you can see today. We – the designers from NSKN – worked for more than 45 days with the artists to make Exodus look like a sci-fi game and keep the graphics as functional and as expressive as possible. It was tough, but it was worth the effort, we were happy with the outcome...
Player board

Box art

Punch-board

The biggest event this game has "seen" so far was in England. We had three full sessions of gaming and far more demos, and people were excited.

Choosing a company for manufacturing the game was another adventure. Our previous game, Warriors & Traders, was made in Germany and people expected us to provide the same quality. So we had to dig really deep to find not one, but two companies which together managed to put together a board game with a shear amount of components, wood, and plastic miniatures on top of the default cardboard. Just to outline what kind of quantities we're talking about, there are more than 300 wooden tokens in the Exodus game box, on top of the nine crowded punch-boards and 48 plastic space ships. So, our search took us to Poland, Germany, China (via Skype) and Romania. We tried for a long time to find an integrated service, but it proved to be impossible – so we settled for a complex operation, with one company proving the plastic pieces and the second one doing the printing, wood, and assembly of the games. 

So here we are now, preparing for Spiel 2012 in Essen, Germany...


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