Refining a Game

I have been working on Tribal Conflict for almost 18 months now. The majority of the past year has been spent quite solidly making improvements. This is a long time, and it has gone by so fast.

One of the thoughts that creeps in from time to time is “Are we done yet?” This is particularly true when I make yet another change. I think I have hit close to 10 times now where I think “This is the last change I need to make”. Then, a couple of weeks later, maybe a month or two, another big change comes up.

That is not to say I am complaining about this. I am definitely prepared to put the time and effort in to improve gameplay. I have known for a while now that I am an in the polishing process, where I take a good game and seek to make it great. But that takes time, and at times it seems like this process will never end.

The danger is it can be easy to get stuck in this loop forever and never release anything. That is the last thing I want. As the game comes together I definitely want to get it finished and into the hands of other people. This is why I am in the early stages of planning a Kickstarter for next year. So at some point in the not too distant future I will need to call the game complete.


The problem when it comes to game design is to not let the “finished” nature of your game stop you from making necessary adjustments to potentially core elements. The further along a project is the more we have to battle mentally to make any significant changes. I’m talking about changes that are more than just cosmetic touch ups to the physical design. For example, in the past month these are some of the changes I have made.

  • Complete overhaul of the heroes that will lead your armies in combat. Each of these provides modifications to combat to help you swing the odds in your favour. I have introduced some new ones and completely rebalanced which heroes each tribe has, which invalidates all of the nice looking cards I had printed so far.
  • Completely changed a spoils of war deck to a hostage deck. This simplifies the concept of those cards and cleans up the rules around how to use them. As a result of this I have renamed the victory tokens you get to be spoils of war, which is a much better fit thematically. This does reduce the number of victory points present in the game, so the total needed to win is reduced. However, to encourage combat against non-castle tiles you now have a small random chance of winning a spoils of war if you kill an enemy hero – usually by destroying their army rather than hurting them enough that they choose to retreat. This then makes retreating a stronger tactical consideration.
  • Reworked the setup phase to incorporate the random construction of the board into gameplay. This came as a suggestion from people who had been playing, and makes the start of the game more interesting.

These are some fairly significant changes that help improve the game. At the same time, they do not actually change the core of how the game plays. As you can see, sometimes a relatively simple change can have a lot of flow on effects. But the options opened up here are much nicer – both from a gameplay perspective and from a thematic perspective. Overall the game is starting to feel much more cohesive, which is a great thing.

Encouraging Response

I was doing some two player testing with a friend last night. This friend was part of the first test we had of Tribal Conflict early last year. He has been involved in the testing process all the way through, generally playing every month or two. This means that he is one of the people who has seen the game progress the most. From the first test where we made got almost nowhere, to the first game where we actually hit a win condition in a reasonable time, through to now where the game is starting to feel polished. His comment, as we wrapped up discussion on how things had gone, was “Every time I play I enjoy it more”. This was encouraging, since it shows progress is being made.

I have noticed a similar thing myself. Despite having played lots in the past year, I still enjoy having a game (when I can take off the designer hat long enough to just play). The look and feel of the game is starting to come together, and I now find myself excited to see it in its final form – even though I know that is still months away.

As a designer it can be so easy to get caught up in the middle of the project. We are aware of all of the small tweaks being made, the minute improvements that are hopefully adding up to a much better experience. However, because we are so close to it all it can often be hard to see the big strides forward that we are making. An outside perspective can be useful to remind us that those small changes are making a difference.

I should wrap things up so I can go prepare for more game testing, this time with some new players as well as some people who have not played in months. Hopefully their enjoyment of the game matches that of my friend last night.