How we play tested Ameritocracy, and how you can test your card game
In this post, I’m going to be talking about how my partner-in-design and I play tested Ameritocracy. Ameritocracy is a strategy card game where you are running for president. You can read a bit more about it on our WIP thread at Board Game Geek (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1403479/ameritocracy). We’ve been play testing it for more than a year.
In the beginning, we followed the guidelines I previously wrote about (https://foodbedgames.com/2015/04/19/how-to-create-resource-costs-for-effects/). Basically, we decided how long we wanted the game to go, how much power it took to win the game, how many resources a player generated each turn, and then did the math. Total time broke down into the expected number of turns we wanted, and then we costed stuff so that the games would end when we wanted.
From that base, we played the game, which sucked, but it gave us some ideas for making it fun. I think after the initial guess at costing, you want to focus on your core mechanic. If your game is a “dudes attack” game like Magic or Hearthstone, this is easier because you have a lot of examples. Our game isn’t, it’s kind of a worker placement game, so we had to do a lot of work understanding our core mechanic. When you have what you think is your core mechanic, I think you want to try to create a deck that is the simplest implementation of that mechanic. For example, if I am making a Magic-like game, I might make an aggressive deck with a bunch of creatures with no abilities. Just make up some cards and play that deck. See how it stacks up against your assumptions of how long the game should take, and whether there’s any fun.
I believe that the core mechanic of the game should be fun. It doesn’t have to be great, but there should be something interesting. In Magic, the decision to attack or hold back a creature, and combat in general, is the core mechanic. It’s not the most fun, but you can play a game with just creatures with no abilities and attacking and blocking. Simplifying the game lets you work out things like the resource system and the nuts and bolts of the mechanic. Once things work at the simplest level, add a bit more complexity. In the example of Magic, maybe add in a few creatures with larger costs and power/toughness. See if the game is still fun.
At this point, you can start to add in mechanics to add more strategy to the game. In Magic, maybe you add in some instants and sorceries. After you do, maybe you realize the bluffing element of instants is something you like, you expand on that. In Ameritocracy, we created what turned into the headlines cards. We liked that type of player interaction, and so we keep iterating on it. Hopefully, you will see things you like in your core mechanic and you can add in elements to expand it and make it more interesting.
From there, it’s about playing things a lot. You can use data-driven approaches to track what are the best strategies, but ultimately, you will have to decide what you want to incentivize in your game. In early Magic, either through design or misunderstanding how many cards a player would purchase (or something else), the best strategies often were not focused on creatures. More recently, Magic has put creatures into the focus. I think this is smart because it keeps the game grounded in the core mechanic. It’s still possible to play a creature-less deck and win, but those decks aren’t dominant. In Ameritocracy, we were worried about a deck with all 3s, the most powerful workers, winning too quickly and thus making it pointless to play other cards. A lot of our balancing has been to make 3s good, but not overwhelmingly so.
It’s also been important to us to not get to a point of strategic collapse. Strategic collapse happens when there is one (or a few) best strategy. Usually some collapse happens, there just are naturally powerful combinations of cards. So I think the objective is “controlled collapse”. The goal for Ameritocracy was to have 4-5 decks that each played differently and either were similarly competitive and/or existed in a rock-paper-scissors type arrangement. We are still working on this one. It’s certainly possible right now to build multiple, similarly competitive decks, if one is focused on doing so, but we aren’t sure if it’s possible to do so if someone is focused on making the best deck. In other words, we can create similarly powerful casual decks, but we don’t know if the game would stand up to tournament play.