Playtest Update: Wider Events

For the last few months playtesting Microscope I’ve been focusing on how Legacies work with taking control of scenes. Fixated, actually. Borderline obsessed. I’ve chased different ideas around, probably a lot more than was necessary, leading to some gentle but firm raps on the head from my wise playtesters.

But while I was doing all that, in the back of my mind I was getting less and less satisfied with the basic structure of the cards on the table. After playing for X hours, a history would get so crowded that you couldn’t really absorb it. You’d look at all the cards spread across the table and your eyes would just blank. Information overload. In your mind you still had a picture of what happened, but the cards were not helping, at least not at a glance. This never happened in short games, but if you kept coming back to a history for three or four sessions it was almost inevitable.

The problem was clearly Events. Periods were easy to read and seemed to stay sensible, but the long columns of Events would spiral out of control.

In addition to the sheer sprawl, there were two other things that bothered me:

1) Related Events, like two battles in the same war, didn’t look more connected on the table than Events that had nothing to do with each other. I’d long wondered if I needed to add another history element, a “cluster” to group blocks of Events, but I was never so thrilled about the idea that I ever bothered playtesting it.

2) Since the early, early days of playtesting, I’d always disliked “monotasker” Events, places where the Event was clearly just made to host a single Scene, or where the description of the Event was really more like a Dictated Scene. Usually the description of the Event didn’t have any more info than the Scene — both were the same “size.” It wasn’t technically wrong, it just led to a lot of clutter, which fed back to the original problem of the cards being visually overwhelming.

Bigger is Better

So I’m thinking I have three problems I need to solve, but in a “birds, meet stone” moment I realize there’s one solution that solves them all: wider Events.

Instead of creating a separate Event for every discrete thing in time (the King declares war against his neighbor, the royal army marches, the army is caught in an ambush), many problems are solved if you create a single Event that encompasses a larger spread of time and action (war between the two kingdoms).

When we played it clicked immediately: you wind up with fewer Events and a lot more Scenes stacked underneath each, meaning the structure of history is a lot easier to see at a glance. The description of each Event (like “the death of the last Star Emperor”) becomes a placeholder for all the separate Scenes that happened within it, like seeing the title of a book and remembering what happens in all the different chapters. It also makes it easier to mentally “put away” all the other Scenes in Events when you aren’t interested in at the moment. It’s a mental chunking trick: there’s the same total amount of information, but it’s stacked in a way that’s easier to absorb. Details you don’t need to see right now are pushed deeper.

Crowding reduced? Check. Related ideas clustered? Check. Extraneous Events zapped? Check. Triple win.

The icing on the cake is that Scene creation is more fluid, because there are fewer “heck, I want this Scene but I don’t have an Event that would contain it and I can only make one thing!” moments. Players have more freedom to throw down Scenes anywhere in the bigger Events.

Play It

If you’re playtesting Microscope, definitely try this change and tell me how it goes. It may have less of an impact if you’re continuing a existing (and already cluttered) history, but for new histories it should make a big difference. I’m pretty sold on it already, but more feedback is good.

    Ben Robbins | March 10th, 2010 | | show 2 comments