That Others May Live – Playtest Updates

The first round of TOML playtesting is done and we are in a bit of a lull before heading into the next round. I’ve decided to give a little update about how things have progressed for anyone who’s curious.

The first round of playtesting had several goals. The three questions we lined up in order of importance were: Is the game enjoyable? Is it possible to break the game? Are the rules clear?

I was happy to note that the playtesters reported enjoying TOML and there were no reports of broad dissatisfaction. Many of the playtesters had signed up because the game covered a topic that hadn’t really been explored in other games. The “uniqueness” factor certainly helped, but people also seemed to like the ease of play once you got the hang of the it. The players found it tense and at times frustrating for the right reasons. If anything, TOML is a game where everything can go perfectly for 99 per cent of the time and then collapse due to the turn of an unfriendly card.

I was also relieved to note a wide variety of play outcomes. This was especially important to me, because I had set out to design a game that balanced out across a series of multiple sessions rather than individual plays. Depending on the chits and cards drawn, some of the missions are quite easy and can be finished quickly while others are brawls that could go on for 12 turns.

From the feedback, it appears that players understood and appreciated this. I’m fully anticipating, however, that people who only play the game a few times will shrug and dismiss it as unbalanced, which is okay with me. However, no one managed to find a secret door to victory though everyone seemed to have their own theory about the best approach. Some players sniffed around on the map with their Sandys in order to locate the opposition. Others rushed their helicopters in on Turn 1 and found out the hard way where the enemy guns were located.

Another aim of the first playtest round of TOML was to nail down the core concepts of the game and check for blind spots in the rules. From the questions that came back, it was clear that the rulebook needed clarifications and better organization. Prior to testing, I had suspected that the rulebook would be the game’s weakest link, but I sorely underestimated exactly how much tweaking it would need.

The biggest problems were cases that I hadn’t seen or considered while writing the rules. As well, I had wrongly made assumptions about the way that players would implement VP scoring that wasn’t explicitly stated. Survivors left on the map after turn 12 are considered captured and VPs are awarded to the enemy accordingly. To my surprise, I had failed to make this clear in the rules and a number of players were left confused in this situation.

There were also problems introduced by damage results, especially for helicopters. When a Survivor is aboard a helicopter, a damage result could send them both to the Orbit Box and out of danger. It was an easy way to get around the problem of traversing the map and having to avoid AAA to get out of the danger area. Worse, there were issues about what happened if a helicopter was shot down and the Survivor went down with it. Would the player need to place one Survivor in the crash zone or two? What happened if a Survivor was aboard a helicopter that was destroyed? How many VP was awarded to the enemy?

The above are just a sample of the questions I got about the game, and I realized I had plenty of work to do. Instead of revising the rulebook, I rewrote it from scratch with much better organization and with more examples (using the questions from the playtesters as a guide) throughout. To help guide my efforts, I looked at examples of well-regarded rulebooks for inspiration. The Fighting Formations rules by Chad Jensen stood out and I borrowed some of its concepts to drive forward with the new version.

The new rulebook starts off with a glossary of terms to help ensure players understand the core concepts of the game along with the terminology. After that is a long components section that examines each kind of counter and card in the game and explains what it does and how it fits in with the overall rules. Next is a section devoted toward the turn sequence and how certain procedures work in the game. Finally, the scenarios are included at the back.

Unhappy with the rescue rules, I rewrote the rescue procedure from scratch. Now instead of loading the Survivor on board the helicopter after two turns, I’ve introduced a degree of uncertainty. This seemed to make more sense because from my reading, the actual pickup of airmen was often the most dangerous and unpredictable part of a CSAR mission. Now the player has to draw Resolution Cards to see if they recover the Survivor. Instead of all this being jammed into the confines of an End Turn Phase, I created an actual Rescue Segment to give this game event enough breathing space.

Although no one complained about it, I was worried that the game lacked a certain spark. It had fossilized a bit too long in my mind and on my hard drive and I was reluctant to make changes that might break the design. With those worries behind me, I set out to squeeze still more from the design without pushing too hard at its boundaries.

To that end, I created Pilot cards, each of which had a special ability. Still, something didn’t seem quite right. I realized that any game about CSAR would be remiss without some kind of nod to those brave pararescue specialists. So I created three PJ cards and included these with the Pilot cards to make a “Pilots and PJs” deck. At the start of a scenario, you draw one card from the deck and assign the Pilot to a Sandy or a PJ to a helicopter.

The final major change was a mini-campaign. These days, every game seems to have a campaign in it and I didn’t want to do one unless I could do it right rather than tack it on. I put together a section in the rules for a small linked three scenario campaign that would allow the players to stretch their legs for a bit and get an evening of fun out of the game. At the end of scenarios 1 and 2, you can spend experience points to buy PJs or pilots or purchase Action Cards. You can also buy an extra turn or two in the next scenario.

Though the core of the game remains the same as it ever was, the new changes are aimed at polishing the rules, the rulebook, and to dress up the gameplay to liven things up. Going into the second and very likely final round, we’ll be nailing things down a little further and making sure that these small things work and add enjoyment to the game. Wish me luck.

I’d like to thank each and every one of the playtesters for their hard work and great feedback. I’d also like to thank Ryan Heilman, the game’s developer who has been very patient and encouraging throughout the whole process. If TOML is any good, it will be because of these people.

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