Ovation Design Diary #2
"What are the two most important things in theatre, boys and girls?”
“Entrances and exits!”
Back in my theatre days, one of my directors would ask the question to the whole cast, and we would all loudly respond in unison. It turns out to be pretty good advice not just for the theatre but for the world of board games as well. How you start and end a game can make or break the players' experience, and finding the right way to end Ovation was one of the biggest challenges I faced. Where Ovation's finale eventually landed is definitely not where I started (ended? started with the ending?...you know what I mean), so I thought I'd share the process of exploring different endings and why being a Maestro is pretty awesome.
Originally taking some inspiration from Splendor, the first end game condition I tried was when a certain player reaches a certain amount of points. This makes fine sense for Splendor, but it turned out there were a few problems with this option for Ovation. First, there are several ways to score points, so it created unnecessary confusion to have to specify only a certain type of points to consider. “The first person to reach x points on their music cards/performances” is already less clear than “The first person to reach x points.” But to make matters worse, Chamber Music and Concert Music points range from 4 points to 8 points. The math is a little more cumbersome than in Splendor which ranges from 1 to 4 points on cards/nobles, so people having to do this level of addition every turn for not only their own scores but their opponents' as well added too much of a chore to Ovation. As if all that weren't enough, this end game choice created pressure to keep up with other players' performances in a race that I didn't fully realize was detrimental until a future iteration.
What I tried next was using a whole new deck of cards that made the game take place over a certain number of rounds. These were called Movement cards, and they had various game state effects. It took a while to realize that there were problems with a set number of turns. First, the time pressure it put on the game made some players abandon building their engines before they wanted to. They felt they had to perform sooner rather than later and were pretty disappointed about not getting to explore their engine more. The other problem was that if someone was able to build a solid engine early enough and fire it off successfully, the last few turns could slow down too much, making other players sit and wait when the game could've ended sooner. I loved those Movement cards, so it was hard to let go of them. They may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten! If there's an opportunity to add a module as a stretch goal, or if Ovation is successful enough to warrant an expansion (what a dream that would be!) rest assured that Movement cards will find their way back in a new way. Here's hoping!
So it was time to try another end game condition. I decided to go with ending the game when one player reached a certain number of music cards that they'd performed, similar to the end game condition in another board game with a card market: Century Spice Road. As I mentioned in the “reach a point threshold” iteration, this highlighted the problem of making the game into a race. The issue was impossible to miss this time. Ovation has multiple options for scoring points which makes it possible to win with fewer performances, but the “x number of performances” end game condition really put pressure on players to ignore the other scoring opportunities and play keep-up-with-the-Joneses on music. That was frustrating for some players and again didn't give the game feel that I wanted. I owe thanks to David Digby for being the first to point out this issue, setting me on the right path at last!
At this point through Ovation's many iterations, Maestro cards had become a part of the game as personal goal cards. Each player received a Maestro card as a secret goal they could accomplish for additional end game scoring. This worked just fine, but as I was hunting for a solution to the end game problem, I had my eye on those cards. Personal goals are great, but if they drive any competition or interaction, only one player is aware of it. I needed a solution to my end game problem, but could I find that solution while also tackling the multi-player solitaire conundrum that engine builders often create? If I took the goals on the Maestro cards and made them public ones, would that create a reason for players to watch the progress of their opponents? Or even reasons to compete to perform the same music? I could have solely made the Maestro cards public and not tied them to the end game trigger, but I wanted to try proverbially killing two birds with one stone by doing both. I made a certain number of Maestro available depending on the number of players, and when a set number of the cards are gone, players would finish the round and then total up the score. The result was exactly what I was looking for! Players competed to achieve goals before their opponents, and they watched each other's progress to see how much time they were likely to have left. It took some balancing to get the various goals right, but these days when one of the Maestro cards is gone, the others are quick to follow. They're designed to be difficult enough that there's plenty of time and flexibility for players to explore whatever path they'd like to for much of the game. Plus, players can usually have a couple of big satisfying turns with their fully-formed engine shortly before Ovation comes to an end. Tempo is everything in music, and Maestro cards definitely helped set the right tempo for Ovation.
Generally when I'm thinking of addressing issues, I like solutions that impact multiple issues at once, and that's exactly what happened here. Multi-player solitaire and a race to the finish did not give the game feel I wanted for a creative, expressive, and collaborative art form like music. Now in Ovation, you choose your own experiences to build your inspiring and creative engine, then perform the music that suits you. Invite your neighbors to attend your performances, so they can get inspired in return. Then when you've achieved greatness in one area, you'll become a Maestro, but the game comes to an end when there as many Maestros as the world can handle. Ovation plays and feels the way I wanted it to, and having the right ending was absolutely crucial.
What kind of end game conditions do you like? How important do you find the game end to be when evaluating your overall experience? I'd love to hear from you.