Below is an email we sent to Conspire playtesters who have filled out our playtest survey over the past few weeks. CPG takes playtesting extremely seriously and values the thoughts and experiences of our players. We wanted to share the design notes with everyone to give insight into how we react to player feedback and encourage future playtesters to contribute.
Greetings Conspire Playtesters,
First off, the Kickstarter campaign is live. We encourage everyone who saw potential in the game and enjoyed their experience to back us. We want you to be a part of this; to continue to contribute your energy, creativity, and insight into making an amazing finished game and living community.
After three cons and numerous targeted playtests, we are getting a good idea of what aspects players enjoy and what we need to focus on. Conspire has evolved from our initial vision into something more special. We want to share what we learned from you and show you how your feedback has influenced us.
Conspire is a tool to tell stories. The hidden-role and written objective aspects give more structure than some other story games out there, but the fundamental objective is to walk away having experienced a surreal tale of conflict and questionable moral choices. Originally, we thought we were making something closer to a framework for custom Werewolf. The player-interactions in those games require tight balance, which is not something players should have to create. Leaning that way left us with a game that was harder and more frustrating for players in “betrayer-type” roles. The solution is to shift more towards the storytelling side.
The most evident change in this direction is talents. Originally, talents were role-specific powers that affected player agency (the actions of a player) at the cost of revealing one’s identity. We advised ignoring that mechanic for the first round at PAX and were completely disregarding it by Big Bad Con. Having something affect agency was awkward at best and unbalanced at worst. Our current solution (which you can see demonstrated in the playthrough video) is to vote on narrative choices. This is either done as a simple one-action choice (dragging Zack back to the boat) or electing someone to narrate what happens (Heather giving the epilogue speech is a version of this). This narrative direction is something we are still honing into a simple, describable mechanic, but our playtesting shows this as a promising solution to characters getting stuck in the story.
We have noticed games of Conspire tend to have two formats: one where the roles define an agenda (betrayer, nationalist, pacifist, etc) and one where they define a position (captain, reporter, veteran, etc). The former sets a tone of back-room dealing and Illuminati-like control over the world. The latter makes a more character-driven story that would be described as a mysterious or critical event by future historians. There are some interesting correlations in the survey. Scene/role/goal creation is easier for the former, but achieving goals is more challenging. I’m fully not sure what to make of this split, but both styles have been enjoyable and work with the format. The Conspire manual will certainly address and advise about both.
Identity and secrecy is an interesting subject. Some people expressed uncertainty about how much they should divulge or even the point keeping roles hidden. There are two kinds of noise to account for: players playing “publically acceptable” roles (if you’re a generic villager in Werewolf, you have no reason to hide that; playing a status-quo role in Conspire would be the same) and players unfamiliar with the genre tropes (if you’ve ever played Werewolf with someone who doesn’t realize they can lie as the werewolf, you know what I’m getting at, though that does reflect a communication issue with the person teaching the game). After trying to account for some of that, there’s still a question around revealing roles. Most players found keeping their role secret wasn’t important (that’s probably not the point). Keeping goals secret is super polarized: it was either critical or irrelevant to keep them hidden (that sounds spot on). I think more playtesting is definitely needed, but adding a lot of guidance to the manual in this section is clearly warranted.
The biggest change is theme. Personally, I find the story game genre often suffers from a commitment to be “themeless”. Such games lack interesting art and flavor text, making reading the manual more of a chore. We wanted a strong aesthetic to frame the game. Despite being named Conspire, it was not always conspiracy themed. Originally, we presented the game as an improvised play and used stagecraft verbage (in case you wondered why the gameplay phases are called “acts” in the survey). The art was going to be weird glass-eyed puppet people on stages controlled by shadowy hands. PAX was probably the genesis for switching to the “conspiracy theorist” trappings Conspire now has. Our goal is to mimic the sillier parts of that community without some of the darker conspiracies from, say, the current election.
Several players suggested the “conspiracy” elements should be more reflected in gameplay. That feeling certainly happens in some games more than others. The closed-door meeting style scenarios have this conspiratorial feeling, no doubt. The character-driven games have less of that feeling because the stakes are more localized. However, you can frame those types of scenes as source material for future investigation. The Fountain of Youth explorers in the playthrough are not plotting against the world, but their actions do shape the future. My feeling is having the manual set the mood will go a long way without inherently limiting players.
Overall, many of the goals and experiences of Conspire are being met. The feedback is very positive (and constructive). 95% of respondents enjoyed their session. As far as I know, only a couple scenes have been similar and those went completely different directions once narration started. Influence has been well received and the “yes-and” nature has been respected (we are going to figure out a solution to keep track of things for larger games). My goal was to respect players’ intelligence and creativity, letting them create settings and scenarios I could not imagine. That happens in every game of Conspire.
I honestly believe game design is a dialogue between the players and the designer. I tried not to single out specific comments, but know I read every word you wrote. If your concern, critique, or general advice feels neglected in this breakdown, please contact me. I’m working to push out a new manual version soon and want to share it with everyone who wants to run Conspire in their living room.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and help us make Conspire.