The following post details some of the initial playtesting and groundwork for Wolves of Mercia.
I’m lucky enough to have a weekly meet up with a group of D&D players and gamers who run the gamut of experience. To prepare for my very first playtest, I sleeved up a bunch of spare trading cards and slipped my sketchy alpha cards in front of them, and off we went.
The session went…fine. The biggest difference between Wolves 1.0 and the final iteration of the game was the way we did turns in the night phase. In the original version, instead of simply having a game master count initiative and keep the game moving, a player would knock on the table to begin and end their turn. This made a lot of sense in practice. It kept the players in control of the flow of the game, and we could easily skip the roles that weren’t in the game. The downside is that it was extremely easy to tell which person was knocking.
That’s one of the most exciting things about designing for the tabletop. A concept may work perfectly in my imagination, but the real world is full of objects, and sounds, and people with real dimensions and real complications. Those complications can open up new avenues of creativity, though. For example, I soon had the idea to leverage the idea of different card types having different backs to create the Inquisitor's "Misinformation" card. This is a blank card (besides some eerie flavor text), yet it has a Secret card back. Perfect for when an Inquisitor checks someone's identity - since the cards have the same backs, he has an equal chance of getting Misinformation.
After four or five games, the playtest group had reached consensus on a few things.
There was also a Secret role called the Vampire, which turned out to be far too strong. As a little peek behind the curtain, here’s how it worked:
[Night] Action: Target another player and swap their Secret card with a Thrall card. Then, if there are three Thralls in play, you win the game.
If the Vampire wins the game, you win the game.
I initially was excited by the Vampire’s ability to change the course of the game, in that his victory was completely inexorable unless the whole town could get together and take him out. But! While exciting on paper, it was basically impossible to beat at the table. As one of those elements you don't necessarily think of until you're dealing with real-life components, it was also hard to know exactly how many Thralls were in play — since players can swap secrets with each other, it just introduced too much of a game-warping effect. And so the Vampire was the first cut. But he wasn’t the last.
But these were just initial rounds of playtesting with a pack of fairly experienced gamers. Now, It was time to get some fresh eyes. It was time for…the office playtest.
Now, most game designers may not be lucky enough to have access to an office full of people who are both a) unfamiliar with most games, and b) willing to try anything. Luckily, my officemates at Brybelly are mostly copywriters and graphic designers, so we all jumped at the chance to get away from the computer!
I rounded up a squad of eight people, sat them down with my pen and paper copy of Wolves (remember, the art consisted of stick figures up to this point!), and we squeezed in several rounds during our lunch hour.
One thing I’ll recommend for aspiring game designers, gather as much data as you can! Before our playtests, I created a survey for my testers on Google Forms. Let me share some of our findings with you.
As you can see, the eighth respondent mentioned that they died early in the game. This actually happened multiple times. It was Brandi. Sorry, Brandi. These were meant to be anonymous but it was obviously you.
You can also see the sixth respondent mentions how the game got less fun after the werewolf died. In this early version of the game, there was a Villager who had the ability to kill other players. Hence why more people died, including the werewolf. It was here I identified that player elimination was a problem for some players, but not all. I made a note that I’d have to do something about it.
I’ll also note, it’s important to find out what the LEAST fun moments are in a given game session. While it’s not amazing for the ego, it does a good job of helping you identify pain points in a given design.
These two questions are important to me. Fun is, after all, why we play games. Not everyone wants the same thing out of a game, so it’s important to be thoughtful about your audience and what they want. The second question ties into this. People tend to have more fun if they have at least some control over what happens to them. That’s why Magic the Gathering players hate drawing too few land cards. I wanted Wolves players to feel like they had the tools to give themselves a fighting chance.
We had a few other questions that dug a bit deeper into the specifics of each round, but the last question came with a bombshell answer.
Brandi (yes, Brandi again), requested something that should have been obvious. I had built player elimination into this game from the start, but something just wasn’t working. It was leaving people feeling left out, or bored. In order to make this game even better, I needed to figure out a way to let dead players continue to participate in the game, even after getting “capped.”
After poring over the survey results, I sat back at my desk and began scribbling again. The first order of business was to scrap the Executioner character. If I was going to ameliorate the issue of player elimination, he had to go. But we needed something more, and in short order, I came up with the cards which eventually comprised our Phantom variant. These are special roles a player can draft after they’re killed. Not only do they keep the player engaged and at the table, they even provide alternate win conditions! (That bumps the number of win conditions in the base game box to about 15!)
Not every playgroup is going to want to play with Phantoms. They do introduce an extra level of complexity that may intimidate inexperienced players, but I believe it will usually be offset by the joy of finding new and exciting paths to victory!
Originally distributed as part of the Wolves of Mercia developer blog, I explore some of the issues I've encountered in some of my favorite social deduction games. It has been reproduced below, with minor edits.
I love social deduction games. Pound for pound, I have played The Resistance: Avalon more than nearly any game in my collection. Love Letter is not far behind it. Most of my other favorites require a ton of what I’ll call “social gaming,” where you can’t always coast by on pure strategy. In games like Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, and Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery, in order to win you will you need to be able to influence the strategies of others — to band together against a player who might run away with the game, or to form an uneasy alliance as you carve out a power bloc. In other words, to complement strong strategy with a certain element of social politicking.
There’s a common saying in the poker world. “Don’t play your cards, play the guy across the table.” But there’s a balance that has to be struck in order to produce a satisfying strategic and tactical experience, lest things slide the other way and become simple contests of charisma and social power. All this is compounded by a common feature of social deduction games, something in the Brybelly Games office we call “the villager problem.”
A lot of games, including the classics Mafia and Werewolf, feature two factions: the werewolves (with perfect information) and the villagers, who make up the majority but don’t have any information beyond the knowledge that they're "good guys." The villagers are more or less harmless unless working in concert, and getting them to harmonize often boils down to a complicated logic puzzle. There are few (if any) tactical actions a villager player can take, and in the end their ability to win or lose usually has less to do with making the right tactical move than listening to the right person.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this game design — after all, it has decades’ worth of game theory behind it. Games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf elaborate on this formula and are widely loved for it. And rightfully so!
But in my own experience with games like these, I often feel helpless and passive when playing as a Villager, like I’m a lamb just sitting at the door to the slaughterhouse, waiting to be taken in. On the other hand, I always relish the chance to play the werewolf. To take the flow of the game into my own hands and strike out in pursuit of an objective. With this in mind, the first thing I decided when it came to Wolves of Mercia, is that every player has the means to work toward an individualized objective.
In other words, Mercia is a city of wolves.