This is part 2 of my Origins 2015 retrospective. You can read part 1 here. This part will summarize my experiences demoing Clockwork Wars for Eagle-Gryphon at the con.
I demoed Clockwork Wars 2-6 times per day from Wednesday through Sunday, for a total of around 16 complete games. We had two demo copies available and (barely) enough space to have two 4-player games running concurrently. I tried to vary the maps and Discovery cards throughout the con - partially for playtesting, partially just to keep myself entertained.
The general pattern was like this: some people had previously signed up to play CW, and some people dropped by with generic tokens to see if there were any spots available. I think we were able to accommodate most people who wanted to play. I had players choose their race, and then started in on 1) general intro to the game (genre, weight, playtime, theme), 2) how to win, and 3) specific rules. In total, this probably took around 20 minutes (30 if people asked lots of questions). Rick had encouraged me to get my training spiel to 10 minutes or less, but I just don't think that's possible. Demo sessions were scheduled to last 2 hours and most people were able to finish their games in that time period (so, 20 min of rules, 100 min of play).
My approach to teaching was to orient them to their player aid (which turned out absolutely fantastic, design-wise), and then use that to march them through a single turn. What aspects of the game seemed to trip people up? First, understanding that you don't really move your troops around in CW. Once you deploy units to a territory, they usually stay there. Second, how combat is resolved. Specifically, reinforcement orders, battle resolution, and turn order. Understanding this system usually required experiencing a few battles in-game.
One nice thing about teaching games at cons is that pretty much everyone you run into has played a lot of board games, so they're 1) prepared to sit patiently and learn rules, and 2) capable of grokking systems quickly because of their prior gaming experience. I was often stunned at how quickly certain players figured out the game and started playing strategically. This wasn't everyone: most people played sub-optimally and were simply exploring the game systems without worrying to much about winning. But I remember a few people who honed in on certain strategies, formulated plans, and carried them out successfully. That was gratifying to see.
One individual, in particular, who I remember from one of my earliest sessions figured out the power of Espionage very quickly. He pursued a heavy court-espionage strategy, supported by conservative (but efficient) map expansion. This allowed him to stay under his opponents' radar for a large majority of the game, and he walked away with a solid win. Impressive. That group of four, by the way, was a wonderful group of people. They were super-friendly and asked me lots of questions about the design and development process during the game. They also really enjoyed the game and brought back several of their friends throughout the con to try out Clockwork Wars. It was nice for me to have such a positive demo experience like that early on.
What did I learn about balance, rules, and potential future errata? Well, I continue to be confident that nothing is broken in Clockwork Wars. There are no infinite loops, and I doubt there are any super-dominant strategies. However, given all the unique cards and effects in the game, it's not surprising that a few tricky cases come up periodically.
For example, a couple people asked whether the Operative could use her assassinate ability against a enemy soldier that was paired with an Engineer (the answer is no, the soldier needs to be alone). Also, after the Operative assassinates during her reinforcement stage, it often surprised people that if the targeted opponent came later in turn order, he could reinforce that battle to take out the Operative. Fortunately, this is a confusion that came up during playtesting and so the rulebook does explicitly cover this scenario.
The Spymaster action, Counter-Intel, is the one rule that is not well-explained in the manual. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is 100% my fault and I wish I could change the wording now to prevent the inevitable confusions that will arise.
With regards to the races, the easiest race to play does appear to be the Mongrels. Their Unique Unit, the Hunter, is powerful and relatively easy to understand. The Troglodytes are also easy to grasp, and people intuitively understand the idea of a combat-weak, research-focused unit. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the Purebreeds' Operative. Some people refused to deploy her at all, fearing her loss early in the game. Some, realizing she would be safe in the Court, simply deployed her there and never moved her. Very few used her like I do: aggressively, periodically placing her into perilous situations.
The Rhinochs, somewhat surprisingly, were the race that people most struggled to understand. The idea that the Crashers can only be deployed into enemy-controlled territory was often missed or misunderstood. If I wasn't paying attention, I'd often see a Crasher simply sitting on the map, defending someone's city (which is not possible - the Crasher acts as a kamikaze unit). I don't think the Rhinochs are underpowered, but after this Origins experience, I suspect that people will find it hardest to understand how best to use these units - and at what point in the game.
Poisoned Waters and Insurrection used to great effect. Treason might be under-powered compared to the rest of the deck, but I need to wait and see what player feedback is.
In terms of the Generals, people were drawn towards the Steamtank. The idea of a mobile uber-unit was appealing. The Steamtank is difficult to use effectively, but a couple people figured out that using Gambit can get it to your front lines quickly, and that's a necessity if you've waited until the middle or late-game to research it. The least used General, I think, was the Guardian - which is perhaps not surprising, since he's defensive and not particularly sexy.
Many, many discoveries were used, and from my perspective, nothing seemed under or over-powered (except possibly Infallibility, a late age Religion discovery). I saw one player use Alchemy and Martyrdom to crank out VP's and win the game. I saw Cataclysm researched, placed on the map, and then used by different players as ownership switched hands over several turns. Generally speaking, people didn't save IP well (to purchase discoveries as soon as they became available), since they were often tempted by what they could afford at the moment. If there's one Discovery that dominated a game, it was probably Colossus. This card lets you destroy Early Age discoveries in play for their points, and the player who researched it got 11 VP's from this effect.
Component wise, I have no complaints. The tiles turned out great, and no one had issues reading the ID tags. The cards are beautiful and textured, and the player aids fantastic. The wooden pieces sit on the map well, but the battlefield is nicely spiced up by the presence of some plastic minis (UU's and Generals). Certainly, if I was buying this game, I'd make sure to spend a little more on getting the plastic UU's - they are so much cooler than the wooden pieces we included by default. The plastic insert that Rick designed is awesome. It is designed to hold all basegame and expansion components securely in one box. This is not an insert that people will be tossing.
Overall, I really thought this was an enormously successful convention for me and Clockwork Wars. The vast majority of the groups that I taught the game to thoroughly enjoyed it, and several went on to pre-order the game after their experience. The game plays well, it plays fast, and it challenges and delights. I'm certainly very proud of how it all came together. Now, I just have to wait a couple more weeks before KS copies ship and the game starts popping up in stores.