I want to talk about a revelation I had. Ok, a revelation that was bestowed upon me by someone much more clever then I in one of my game groups and a tester on Shake Out!, Tom Barclay of Polyhedral Fury.
If you are like me, it has probably occurred to you to record data on play test sessions when developing a new game. If you are like me AND you've tried this, then you know that the real challenge isn't in figuring what data to record but what to do with it once you have it. What Tom did for me was so simple but so huge toward helping me balance the scores in Shake Out! that it's actually changed how I think about value tweaking. What he made me realize is that I didn't have to replay the game to see how scoring changes could affect outcome, I could play the games first and figure out the scores after... sort of, let me explain.
What Tom explained to me was that the scoring in Shake Out! completely depends on the end game state and that by recording what all the players had at the end of a game I would be able to calculate what their score could be given changes to scoring values. So, what I ended up noting, for the purpose of Shake Out! wasn't everyone's score at the end of games, because that's not what I was looking for. I recorded how many of each type of card a player had collected and their colour sets. I then entered this data into a spreadsheet in Google Docs that would automatically give me the scores produced by the recorded games given input values for each card value and set size value. Here's a screen shot of what this looked like.
This allowed me to have a number of fully played games recorded and see how different the scores would have been if the points had been different as opposed to changing the point values then having to play again to see the effects! It was HUGE!
Ok, so that's Shake Out! but what about applying this to other games? The best candidates for this are games in which points are simply counted at the end. This makes it easy to simply record how players have scored at the end of the game. This doesn't mean you can't do this for a game where players score during the course of the game, it just means you'll have to note how players are scoring during the game rather than all at the end. The main idea is that you are recording the ways in which players are scoring, not their score proper since that's the variable you will want to tweak. In Shake Out!, for instance, if I recorded that a player ended up with a Four of a Kind at the end of the game, I was able to see what their score would have looked like if that card had been worth half as many points, or twice as many, instantly.
What I was looking for with Shake Out! was to make the two methods of scoring, set collection and card values, equally valid. A secondary goal was to try to achieve tighter score margins as this is generally good practice in my book. This idea of recording the game events and tweaking the scores after was instrumental in achieving these goals.
Now, I couldn't evangelize this kind of number shuffling without one HUGE caveat! Changes in scoring will affect how players play the game so continue testing and recording new games to add to your spreadsheet! If capturing a base is worth 1 point one day and 5 the next, you can be darn sure more players will be gunning for those bases at 5 points a pop! This, like any other design technique should be but one tool in your kit and should simply help to steer your scoring toward where it needs to be. There's no substitute for trying out the changes with players.