I finished a round of edits and cleanup on the Potemkin Empire rules last night — it’s still testing really well; every group to play it ends up getting into the sarcastic tone, and preposterousness of the theme, though I must say, when I first put pen to paper for this, it wasn’t intended to look so timely with current geopolitics. Hopefully that won’t be a turnoff when pitching, or selling to customers, if there’s a feeling that it’s just chasing some soon-to-pass cultural zeitgeist. But! The theme is too strongly baked into the mechanics to worry much about that now.
One test group at Protospiel was made up of several hardcore “card game”-type players; folks who seek out “drafting” games as a genre, or have committed to memory their entire Magic:TG and Shadowfist decks because they play those games competitively. This group was unanimous in suggesting that Potemkin Empire needed a little more ‘meat’ to the strategy; suggesting that instead of only having cards which caused buildings to be “fake” or “real”, giving those cards alternative unique non-standard actions to make the Drafting Phase more interesting. I was nervous this might be too many moving pieces for a more casual audience (I think a big swath of my target audience for this has never encountered “drafting” as a mechanic), plus… if I’m honest, designing and implementing something like that scared me. It seemed like a lot of work to make sure I had created “balance” among them, and how would I decide whether an action like “Recover a killed spy” should be attached to a card that, if used to build, would be a fake building, or a real building?
My tendency in design patterns would be to try and determine a unit value of each card, and then try to offer a spread of values within some range, but to a large degree, I don’t feel like I know how to pin an exact value to (for example) an “Occupied” Interior card (which is used to build a “real” building) — it’s worth zero points in final scoring, but combined with an Industry Façade early enough in the game… it can become a nearly limitless source of ‘safe’ resource cubes (3 of which are worth a point at the end). And when I play, I tend to evaluate my draft options rather subjectively based on both my current strategic position as well as how dangerous of an Espionage environment the other players are creating at the table. So it feels like the exact value is either unknowable, or I’m just not an experienced enough designer yet to know how to assign a literal point value to one these cards.
So I kinda split the difference; after coming up with a list of “Actions” that would have interesting or compelling effects, I made at two of most of them and put one on each type of Interior, thinking the draft itself might operate as a kind of balancing tool.
I ran the game twice with a new group of players, once with instructions that they ignore the ‘Actions’ on the cards (only using the cards for their construction uses), and then again WITH the actions. The difference was clear — the actions added a lot of good tension to the draft, I watched as people wrestled more with which cards to keep; then during Posturing, new strategies emerged, including something I thought was really cool to see: a solid-but-less-exciting “all Industry” strategy became more fun as it was now possible to pursue it, AND get in on the tit-for-tat against more Espionage-focused players. Players spent more time diversifying their cities, using the full range of Façade types. I think it was a huge win for the design.
Next steps are to get even more creative with the card “Actions”, and to apply them to more of the Interiors deck — I think in the end, Interiors which are only “empty” or “occupied” will be less common than cards which also have an Action. Perhaps in the full draft deal of 16 cards, there might be as few as two ‘plain’ interiors. Then more testing.
All told, I’m more and more excited about this design: it’s fun to play, it’s easy to pick up, and almost everyone who has played asks to play again. I’m really looking forward to pitching this, hopefully I’ll find it a good home!