A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese, Onside Review by Nick Luft
The game is intended to be a club-sized game for between 4 to 10 people. The game is about medieval farming, the struggle to survive, the conflict between the villagers, and the conflict between the villagers and the manorial Lord.
I was inspired to design this game after being slightly dissatisfied by other farming games like Taverna, Agricola, Puerto Rico, and James Kemp’s Poppy Farmers. In those games, the initial position was rapidly improved on, and the players concentrated on buying into technology paths and improvement advantages. This is not my model of how medieval farming works. The Medieval peasant was constantly struggling to survive, and the participants sought small advantages, often illegal ones that thwarted the authority and power their manorial Lord because it improved their slim chances of surviving, not because it meant they could buy the next improvement.
Developing the game
The October game was my third play-test of this game. Before I talk about this I want to talk about the game design path I have trod first. How I got to this third play-test – the least successful – is a case study of the game design process. It might contain lessons for others, if not just for me. Game designing is a complex and complicated business. You make mistakes. You go down paths that lead to dead ends. But you learn. You learn from these mistakes. The main problem is overcoming despair. It’s not worth it. Who wants to play this damn game? Why am I doing this anyway?
The History of the Design
My inspiration was to understand how medieval farming worked. I started thinking the historical model. How did the horse improve ploughing? What did they do with the fallow fields? What was assarting? How close did they come to starving each year?
I started reading about methods of medieval farming. When I was familiar with this I had an answer to the above questions. I then made a spreadsheet with the inputs and outputs, calorific content of foodstuffs to work out how close they were to starving every year. I learnt a lot about farming and food in working on this spreadsheet. I knew that this level of detail was not going to directly into the game; it would have to be simplified. But the learning path was necessary, it made me feel I really knew the subject.
First play-test (Jul 2016)
My first step was to take the actual activities of farming and make this into a step by step order of play and reduce the numbers crunched in the spreadsheet to be manageable, but realistic. Yes, you can see where this is going. Too much detail does not maketh a game. In the first play-test, we didn’t even play one turn. We had a good discussion. The model/game worked – it would have given a realistic result, I had tested it – but was not playable. But to my surprise, several players expressed their interest in the scenario! One, Mukul, even went away and read up about medieval farming.
I took away the design and massively simplified it. Each time I reduced the game’s complexity I then tinkered some more and more detail crept back in. Yet again, I reduced the complexity and then tinkered. I did this four times. I told myself that each time I downsized the game I had reduced its overall complexity even though I tinkered afterwards. I now think that I was downsizing a model rather than a game and was doomed to fail. This was the time for a radical overhaul, a change from modelling to gaming.
The final version reduced the number crunching; allocating resources to achieve seasonal bonuses rather than one huge calculation. It looked more streamlined. But I was tired and had run up against my deadline and neglected to test it.
Second play-test (Aug 2017)
There were quite a few problems with this play-test. I did not model the amount of food each player should have in stock to survive the year. I had also neglected to play through a turn or two myself. In the end, all the families starved, even though the players managed to churn through to the harvest using the less arithmetically heavy mechanics.
However, I noticed that the players were most interested in the social interaction and conflict. If I have learnt one thing in game design, it is to watch emergent play and what the players do; and not to listen too carefully to what they say. In website testing, there is the concept of user testing on about 5 users. If they all same have a similar criticism then listen, otherwise its just signal noise. Nielsen, J. (2000). “Why you only need to test with 5 users”.
I was now contemplating two types of games:
- either a game of mechanics that the players could engage with easily and get realistic results or
- I could go with a role-play type of game with light mechanisms that enabled players to take illegal action, to report each other to the Bailiff and indulge in shenanigans.
Of course, this is where I should have revisited what I wanted my game to be. What was my game aim? Wallman, J. (2007). “It’s only a game”.
Instead, I opted for a compromise!
I tried to disguise the numbers as much as possible and hide the mechanics and rely on the card play to replace the allocation of resources to produce output and enable illegal actions, subterfuge and potential conflict.
Third play-test (Oct 2017)
I don’t want to go through the minutiae of the play-test. There was a lot of very useful conversations which will inform the next play-test.
In brief, there was a conflict between players wanting to know how the numbers and the mechanics worked out and my desire to gloss over that and go for the card play. The players immediately calculated what food they needed for the year. I told them that it was not necessary as I had calculated this and they couldn’t change the output very much only through card play. But they all calculated their needs and proceeded. I had not realised that hiding the mechanics, even though they were evident would result in such player behaviour.
The good news is that after the third play-test I have seen the light and know where I want to go with this game. No more comprises. I have watched the players and listened to feedback and re-read my game design aim. (Always, always, formally write this up and keep it safe.) I feel a little guilty that it has taken three goes to get to this stage. But then when I think about the complexity of good game design I realise that designing anything is difficult.
After the game, I sat down in the pub with Pickles, and he took me in detail through his idea to remove the maths from the game. I can now see an interesting way forward that I had buzzed over but not really thought through. Later I had a conversation with Martin French, over breakfast, I now have a much better method of representing how the Bailiff and Lord took food out of the mouths of the peasants.
I have come down firmly on the side of the role-playing aspect of the game. There will now be a Bailiff player who will attempt to control what the players do, who will collect resources and cards off the players and occasionally demand more with wet and dry boons. The players will play their remaining resources in the form of cards that can influence the output of their fields and will degrade their food stocks.
Watch this space.