Play-Testing The Valley at Caffeinated Dragon

We had our first big play-testing session for The Valley this Saturday just past (14 November 2020) at Caffeinated Dragon Games. I gave all of the testers a notebook and a questionnaire, with cues for feedback if anyone needed prompting. We got some really good comments – we were very lucky to have an amazing calibre of testers, and quite a range of playing styles, too! Monica and I play a very similar game, whereas some of the other players were much more mathematical. No one was a very aggressive or “take that” player, which was interesting.

We sent out the draft rules for review before the game, so those who like to read in advance could do so. This post covers the rules as they were for testing – in the post after this, we cover some of the changes we intend to make.

Our awesome testing crew, from front left, clockwise: J from 3 Minute Board Games, Sam Macdonald and Shem Phillips from Garphill Games, Glyn Alcock, and Will and Monica Quinn, at Caffeinated Dragon Games (staff in the background).

From the notebooks

I have combined the feedback in the notebooks with the extra information we got from the debrief at the end of the sessions.

  • The game is too numbers-heavy for non-mathsy people
  • How come gatherers can’t trade with the resources in their baskets?
  • Should resources scale with the player count?
  • More than one negative harvest Spice card can prevent people from gathering at all, meaning it’s a wasted turn. If this happens at strategic times in the game, it could prevent recipes being completed at all due to recipe length. No all-day durations, use a die to count down their effects, perhaps.
  • The Artisan Recipe should be skill level 1 if Skill Levels retained
  • “Play immediately” Spice cards being drawn by players doesn’t feel right – if a card costs an action to draw, you should control when and how it is played.
  • Player Houses need to connect to their respective resources more than just through the House Rules ability option.
  • “Take that” cards are not a good fit with the theme – why are they there?
  • Open trading is a time sink and should not feature. Alternative trading options could work, if they have preset conditions that do not add to play time, for example the “gift box” options in Above and Below, with set exchange rates depending on the box selected – an “honesty box” idea like rural roadside stalls
  • Window limits are probably too granular in terms of forecasting what you need.
  • 1 person per trade spot is too restrictive – maybe add multiple trade spots with decreasing exchange rates depending on order of arrival rather than skill level.
  • Gameplay is too rules-heavy – too many barriers to fun
  • It takes 2 rounds to start playing, which is frustrating. 3rd round is the earliest you can start a recipe.
  • Trade and Harvest could be done as part of same move/simultaneously with other players to speed up play.
  • Resource icons in top corners of Spice cards look like a cost (cf. Recipe).
  • The Thyme board feels like a weird gate, especially at the end of the round. Allow players to complete their recipes at end of day.
  • 30 Harvests of Cottage spot should be a way to use that or leverage that resource specifically
  • Engine building

From our observations

  • People in this group prefer to discard first, then pick up the remainder of the cards to get their hand back up to 5.
  • There was confusion around batches and whether you can make the same recipe multiple times in the same go if you have the materials.
  • There was confusion about what being able to make multiple recipes should mean, and why you can’t make a recipe that takes less time than the one you already have in progress.
  • There was confusion around allocating workers to recipes, and who could do what, and when to advance and complete the recipe, and what each recipe made.
  • The new design of the market goods tokens was good for recognising the shapes, but the multiples shown in the form of dice were not successful for everyone.
  • There was confusion around which recipes could be done now, and how to get a Skill increase (and why it even mattered).
  • There was frustration with not being able to do some simultaneous movements, and the scarcity aspect.
  • There was a suggestion that skill level 2 recipes should be separated and only made available once that skill level was achieved.
  • Skill levels are seen as stage-gating rather than levelling up, and higher value recipes simply being more expensive in resources or time feels like a better fit
  • Forcing a move in the Valley floor is seen as a more dynamic way to play, and prevents people from simply guarding a spot.
  • There was confusion around playing the other Spice cards, and how and when to use them.
  • There were some issues understanding product/item on the Mood cards. Standardising terminology is required (check throughout game).
  • The luck aspect of the dice to make the first sale was really unpopular
  • The large amount of calculation required was really unpopular
  • As with phase 1, people didn’t like playing Mood-Killers

From the brainstorm session

Delicious pizzas from Pizza Pomodoro fuelled our bodies while we debriefed the play-testers

Phase 1

  • Make use of cottager harvest bonus and cottage matching the cottager – there should be an advantage that links the cards to the actions
  • Spice cards that are played against others are not a good fit for this game – people generally preferred to play them against themselves
  • Instead of having to count out resources, place them on the tiles (adjust for player count?), and restock depending on their reproduction speed, suggested asymmetry here
  • Blights etc would reduce the load of a tile, rather than eliminate all tokens. Adds tension without removing all options.
  • Probably better as a 4-player unless big changes made to the playing time
  • Use a choice of actions instead of everyone trying to manage a whole lot of things – move further along the gatherer order idea but take it to all actions, including the choice to trade, sell, etc. 
  • There’s no feeling of reward for completing an action. Look for ways to give moments of joy and excitement. 
  • Not being able to make anything is really hard – starting with artisan trade items as well as resources could get the ball rolling, as well as having some easy recipes that don’t require artisan items at all.
  • Could the wildcard recipes be the easiest, and the ones that require specific items be the hardest/highest value?
  • Do we even need baskets? What happens without the baskets? 
  • What if the cottages were always on their own colour tile? 
  • Fortune and Spice cards could be combined in the first phase, and so they could affect either harvesting or sales, as those are both actions taken in phase 1 in that scenario.
  • What if you had Customer cards visible, just like the Recipe cards, and you could choose to try to meet a customer order instead of just trying to sell at random? These would replace the concept of the Market Stall Display cards, and you would be working towards filling a specific order from the start of the recipe selection process, rather than hoping you can sell what you make.
  • What if you could move along the edges of the tiles (like in Catan) instead of only having access to one harvest type? How would you specify which tile you were harvesting? And would your turn go move, harvest, or harvest, move? And why that order?

Phase 2

  • Replace phase 2 with an action in Phase 1 instead – “go to market” or some way of selling to customers that takes effect immediately
  • Having face-up recipes to choose from rather than drawing from the pack feels more in theme and would be better than being forced to contend with random unsuitable cards drawn from the pack.
  • Using Experience points as an equaliser rather than further separating the players
  • Possibly use dice as a way to haggle or representing word of mouth advantages
  • Sold items vanish; perhaps they could be cycled back into the pool instead, like other resources, if sales are just another action?

How this worked for us

Firstly, it confirmed some of the things I had been planning to change or remove:

  • The Storm Damage cards in the Spice deck are too powerful, and kill the vibe for the game. They should either stick to Blights, which only last for an hour, or only affect one tile.
  • Skill levels for the recipes are too complicated – when it takes several diagrams to explain something that doesn’t add value or fun, it’s time to look at whether you should remove it altogether.
  • Much as I wanted it to tie together, the second phase continues to play like a different game. There needs to be a different way to tie in the market day in a way that still allows players to see their strategy all the way through from start to finish.
  • We haven’t got the attributes and special abilities right for the Cottagers yet
  • The Market Confidence combined with the Fortune cards is too strong, and often far too negative. If Phase 2 continues and turns into a second game (perhaps an add-on in the same universe for Kickstarter rewards?), we need to tone that down so that markets feel (artificially, lol) more likely to conclude in success.
  • We still haven’t resolved the issue with the market goods tokens – they are fiddly and it’s hard to find the one that matches the recipe card, and it feels unnecessary.
  • The Market Stall Display cards don’t make enough sense as targets when people aren’t accustomed to thinking like a market crafter. For me, I plan my stall and build towards it, but non-crafters find it hard to make things with no guarantee of reward, which is fair.

Secondly, it gave us some ideas of how we could address those issues – firstly, we needed to question everything. Then, we needed to constantly think about making things fun vs. gatekeeping – are these rules there to make the game better, or just more regulated? And we had an idea for how to speed up the rounds so that they felt less clunky and stilted.

In the next post, I will talk about the questions we asked ourselves, and the changes that we are trying out as a result.

Once again, to all of our testers, and to Caffeinated Dragon Games, a huge thank you! Everyone received a variation on this certificate, because we are cheesy, but also because there’s a reason people enjoy certificates – they formalise how much your contribution is valued.

Published by Drayer Ink

Artist, designer, ideas person

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