I spent last night playtesting my game. Here are some notes on what I learned, and what I've done/what I'm going to do to fix it.
To start, here's the latest version of the board:
The pieces are a bit too big though. When you move a piece, it brushes up against the corners of all the pieces it passes by, and pushes them around. It's a minor thing, but it gets tedious pretty quickly. I've bumped down the size of the pieces just a little bit.
The one thing that every single play-tester told me was that my game was really intimidating. Just looking at the rule-book and the board, people felt overwhelmed. In one player's words:
"you see all the letters and numbers and arrows and everything, and it's just, like,
One player turned to me and asked quite contemptuously, "Is this a science game?" So, first impressions are not good. I really don't know what to do about this. I mean, those letters and numbers are important; the game would be a hell of a lot more confusing without them. Other people complained about the size of the rulebook, but frankly I was impressed that I got it down to the size it is now. I really don't know what I can cut, and most of it is pictures anyway. On the other hand, most players said afterwards that once they actually started playing, it was pretty straightforward and user-friendly. This affirmation comes with a huge caveat however, for one very important reason...
No one was actually able to play my game correctly.
Some people got pretty close, but in all the games I watched, nobody was able to consistently follow all the rules. Now, the obvious answer here is that my rules were poorly written, and in some cases that's true, as I'll discuss in a minute. But half the time, players would read the rules, even demonstrate that they understood the rules, and then when they started playing, they would completely forget, and just make up their own crazy ways to play. And the thing is, they thought they were playing right. They didn't question what they were doing because they thought it was correct, and they were genuinely surprised to learn they were playing wrong.
What really surprised me was what they got wrong. I had expected players to struggle a lot with the wrapping edges of the board, since that's somewhat novel and seems counter-intuitive, but everybody grasped that straight away. What evaded every player was the mechanic of pieces bouncing off one another, which was supposed to be the core element of game-play, and which I had assumed would be easy for people to grasp. Instead, players would have pieces go through fusion/fission every time they collided! They make the game so much harder for themselves, and then they cry at me that it's too complicated.
I'm pretty sure I know why this happened: because I had assumed the mechanics of wrapping, fusion and fission would be harder for people to understand, I went out of my way to draw attention to them in the rules, and explain them with absolute clarity. I gave each of those rules their own section, with a big bold title at the beginning. But because I had assumed that the collision mechanics would be more intuitive, I didn't make a big deal of them. They were explained quite thoroughly, and had pretty pictures to illustrate, but they were just stuck haphazardly in the "Movement" section, so my guess is that nobody paid much attention to them. I have since re-organized the rulebook to solve this problem.
Here's another bizarre phenomenon. One of the things that every group of playtesters got wrong was the rules for fission. But what's weird is, they all got it wrong in the same way, with the split pieces flying off towards the first moving piece instead of away from it. Everybody did exactly the same thing, and there was no communication between groups. Does that mean I should just change the rules to match what they were doing, even though what they were doing doesn't make any sense physically or thematically?
One last thing. Even though nobody understood my game, even though nobody played it entirely correctly, they were still having a lot of fun. I was there, I saw them, and they were getting really into it. They were invested in the game, and in finding a strategy to beat out their opponents. Every triumph and defeat was genuine. And even though the game they were playing wasn't exactly the game I had designed, in general it was close enough to elicit the kinds of experiences I wanted. So all in all, I feel good about this. I'll probably never have another first playtest as successful as this one was.