Playtesting Orbiters: Analyzing a First Game

Orbiters is here! The prototype arrived a couple of weeks ago (thanks to Game Crafters), and I was very fortunate to have feedback from pro tester Nick Werner for the first round of playtesting. Here are the results of that first game:

Randomness

It proved to be much more difficult to put together the groups of satellites needed to satisfy research objectives than I had thought it would be. While I had distributed the number of cards for each satellite according to how many research objectives required that satellite, the randomness of shuffling and drawing — along with the sheer number of different satellites — still made it far too unlikely to get a suitable hand within a few draws.

Orbiters research satellite science card game complete hand
A research objective with a complete satellite hand

Nick suggested cutting the randomness by putting all the satellite cards on the table, and having players draw research objectives instead, bidding on satellites competitively. This change should also speed up gameplay (see Length of Play below).

Vocabulary and Text

The game involved too much vocabulary and too much text. This, I suspect, was a direct result of research blinders: having done so much research about the satellites, I wanted to include more information about them than was feasible, and also wanted players to think about them as much as I had. I let my excitement about the game’s informational content get in the way of good game design.

Specifically, I had wanted players to do some reasoning about what kinds of data would satisfy research requirements, which led me not to standardize the vocabulary I used to describe what each satellite can do and what each objective requires. I wanted to avoid a scenario where players match vocab without thinking about meaning. However, as Nick pointed out, our players were matching anyway; the varied vocab choices just made it difficult to know which game moves were valid and which weren’t. Like good old Oregon Trail, an educational game shouldn’t force information on players; it should foster interest, at which point players will seek the information on their own. The game can provide it without pushing it.

Orbiters satellite science card game
So many satellites, so much text.

It was quickly plain to see that this non-standard vocab was hindering gameplay significantly, as my playtesters wrestled with each research requirement and searched card text to find the information they needed. All of the cards will be re-written with this in mind, and text on cards will be separated into flavor text and game text. (Flavor text, if you’re not familiar with the term, is information that may be of interest to players, such as true information for games built on factual research, but is not necessary for gameplay.)

Length of Play

I want Orbiters to play in less than half an hour, even close to fifteen or twenty minutes. Our initial game lasted forty minutes and wasn’t close to finishing when we broke to discuss it.

A significant contributor to this problem was the vocab and text. Players had a lot to read on each card, which caused them to spend a long time on each turn. The randomness of card draw and the large requirements of each research objective also meant that, most turns, players did nothing but consider options and then discard a couple of satellites. While plenty of traditional card games (like gin rummy, on which the initial play mechanics of Orbiters were loosely based) play this way, it felt boring and disorganized.

Changing the game mechanics to cut randomness and the card contents to standardize vocabulary and highlight the text relevant to gameplay should take care of the length issue. In playtesting round two after rules revision, I’ll be looking for the next version of Orbiters to play faster and feel faster, with less randomness (and less frustration caused by randomness) and more direct access to information with better-formatted text.

Updates to follow!

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