The Magic Trick of In-Person Playtesting [Suspense: The Card Game]

Image licensed from Scott King

One of the things that came to stark relief after UnPub3 is how much the designer being present at a playtest can influence reactions to that game. It's a mixed blessing. The immediacy of your feedback is great for rapid prototyping, but it's hard to decouple the feedback to your game from your presentation of the game. Take for example the Alien-themed deduction game I posted about last week. I brought it in my back pocket as an unofficial side project to Belle of the Ball.

If I saw people milling around and I had a couple minutes between tests, I would ask "Hey, want to play a 5min game?" They'd say "sure" and quickly draw a crowd. In a hushed voice, I start the magic trick.

"You're trapped on a derelict space ship with a hostile alien entity. Only one of these items will let you escape. You're trying to figure out which it will be."

I shuffle the deck and continue. "There are only 13 cards in this deck. There is a white 1 through 6, a black 1 through 6, and a gray 0. The bottom of each card lists a unique condition for escape, like 'Highest card in hand,' or 'Lowest white card in play,' and so on. They're all some combination of either highest or lowest; card in play or card in hand; and sometimes specifically a black card or white card. The only exception is the 0, which says 'Lowest sum of numbers in play' is the condition of escape. That's it, just 13 unique cards."

I fan out the whole deck face-down in my hands and turn to a bystander. "Will you please pull a card out of the deck and put it face down on the table? Thank you."

I turn to the rest of the players, pointing at the face-down card, and say, "This. This is the card that will decide who will escape. You don't know which card it is, but you know which card it isn't."

I deal the remaining 12 cards evenly to the players face down. "These are your hand of cards. Because each card is unique, you now know that the conditions listed in your hands are NOT going to lead to escape."

I give the players a moment to assess their hand. "Now, you'll take turns. On your turn, you can pass or play. If you PASS, you do nothing and the next player takes their turn. If you PLAY, you take one card out of your hand and put it on the table face-up in front of you so everyone can see it. On the first round, everyone must play. Ready? Begin."

The players are a little confused at this point, so when the first player chooses a card, I'd pause for a moment to drive home the general process of elimination that is key to playing the game.
For example, if Ted played a black 1, I'd point to it and say "Alright, Ted has revealed that the highest card in hand is NOT going to win. It's now the Sarah's turn."

Sarah plays a white 6. "Now you know the lowest card in play is probably going to win. Aw, too bad Ted, but chin up. You could still make it. There are still 9 cards to go after all!"

And so on. The game is designed so that by the end of the round, players have at least one card in hand, sometimes two. I reach for the hidden card card and say "Alright, now we find out who will escape. Iiiiiit's the lowest black card in play! Ted wins!"

This all had the appearance of a street magic act, with the final reveal being the "prestige" climax. If "the show" went well, a raucous outcry would draw in another crowd for a new round of play. Folks seemed to like the brain-burning deduction and novelty of a 13-card game. The game even placed runner-up in Bryan Fischer's microgame contest.

Despite the reception, I could already sense some mechanical bugs. I think my dramatic hustle was just hiding the game's warts. Thankfully, these were made very evident after outside playtest feedback where I wasn't present to put on a big show.

That's a lesson to me that I shouldn't get too caught up in my own hype. With that cold splash of water, I admitted to myself that the game has some big problems, but also potentially interesting solutions that keep the core novelty intact.

  • The game is too random with 4 players. When you only have three cards in the first turn and you have to play one, it's really a luck of the draw that decides victory.
  • Kobayashi-Maru (no-win) hands are also very possible, though they can sometimes be defeated with a clever bluff. For example, one player deduced that the hidden card rewards the highest white card in hand but he only had a white 4. As play progressed, he revealed other cards to make it seem as if a high white card in play would win. This player bluffed well enough get me else to play my white 6, so when the round ended, he won.
  • It's rare that a player good at deduction is also a good bluffer. For those players, I introduced the so-called "Gandalf" option. Before the card is revealed, each player can basically say "FLY, YOU FOOLS!" and admit that they're not going to win. If their deduction is correct, they get a small consolation reward. In this manner, good detectives can still have a small second-place victory in the round if they were dealt a bad hand.
  • I also introduced a kind of "traitor" role. The dealer actually knows the secret card. Players already know the dealer is the traitor. What they don't know is whether he's bluffing about the secret card. This really emulates the Alien theme from the first two movies where saboteurs are easily discovered, but reluctant to reveal what they know. Play becomes a kind of competitive interrogation.
  • Having low cards refer to high victory conditions and vice versa was very brain-burning, without entirely being fun. I am trying to flip it so low cards refer to low victory conditions and high cards refer to high victory conditions. With one less cross-reference to consider, perhaps the game will be easier to grasp for newcomers.
  • Regardless of these changes, it would be good for players to place their cards face-up in a numerical row in the middle of the table so everyone can see the gaps at a glance. This unfortunately hides who played which card, so the game would need to include player tokens to place on each card so ownership is clear. This elegantly removes the need for a reference chart, too.

My only apprehension at this point is the theme and how it relates to the victory conditions noted on each card. The connection between the two is pretty much non-existent, but it served as a useful hook to lure players their first game. I couldn't tell if this was just part of the magic trick.

For now, I'm posting the current build on DriveThruCards under the title Suspense: The Card Game. Look for more on that soon. I can't afford to hire artists yet, but if this game gets popular on DTC, it might build up enough for an art budget.

Maybe you'll see SPACE SUSPENSE with aliens and some slight tweaks to make it more Alien-ish. With that done, you might then see SUSPENSE JR. with those friendly animals making their return alongside simpler victory conditions. The basic elements have rich potential for re-themes. I just gotta make sure I have a healthy balance of in-person and external playtests in the future.


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