Even though Umbra Via came in first place there’s plenty of room for improvement, and I received some really good feedback from the judges on how go about that. Before jumping into the things to improve, I did want to put one little quote that made all the obsessing over the game for the last year feel worth it.
“It’s strangely absorbing, especially for an abstract.”
Anyway, on to the improvements! There were three main pieces I wanted to focus on first. For this post I’ll go over what the feedback was and then my thoughts and some next steps for addressing it.
(Also, for those of you who don’t know about the game, I have a bit of an overview here)
Being an abstract game makes this a bit tricky. Mostly what I was going for with the current art style/theme was more of a mood/style thing. I had trouble coming up with a theme that wasn’t just city building and it felt like there were a few too many of those anyway, so I picked an occult style/theme. It also was not a huge focus for me during development as people who played liked the art style enough and found the gameplay engaging enough that they never commented.
However, the theme wasn’t enough for some of the judges. Hearing this feedback from the judges was a nice wake up call that I’ll need to take a more serious look at updating the theme to get the game to the next level.
As to what themes I could do, I could go back to my old “summoning circles” idea and solidify the “occult” theme more. Here’s what some of the tiles used to look like before when I was really trying out the occult/necromancer theme:
I ended up deciding to tone it down a bit and just make something simple until I came up with something better, but its always an option to go back to. I could try something lighter. Fairy circles or runic inscriptions or something like that could work. I’ll also have to think some more about themes that are completely different.
I’ve also heard that publishers will possibly just change the theme anyway, so I’m not quite sure how much work I should put into this (and some of the judges didn’t seem to mind the theme at all). However, I at least want to have some possibilities written down and explore any that seem promising.
So for this one, my desire to make everything work perfectly together backfired a little. This quote sums it up: “[T]he game is so polished and smooth that it could use just a little grit “. The main thing that this lack of grit would affect is the game’s longer term replayability. Thankfully the judges had a great suggestion! Adding in some rule modification cards like in Santorini to mix things up from game to game. I like this idea a lot. One of the things I like and have focused on for Umbra Via is how easy it is to start playing, so I always tried to avoided complicating it. However, adding something optional like rule modification cards or special tiles would be a great way of adding in some of that grit for people who want to mix things up, while still keeping the base game accessible. (Also, there was one special tile that I ended up removing because it was just too many extra rules, that now I could add back in!) This also could be a good opportunity for increasing the tie in to a theme.
The Soul Cubes
The feedback around the soul cubes was the most interesting.
To give some quick context, you bid on tiles using cubes drawn from your bag. Soul cubes are special in that they count as two cubes for bidding purposes, but they get removed from the board immediately after so that they don’t count for controlling a path. The more you are winning, the more soul cubes get put into your bag. The goal was to hold the winners back a bit while also making them feel like they were being given a reward for winning.
These two pieces of feedback highlight the issue the most to me:
“The catchup mechanism blends in seamlessly into the gameplay. It’s light enough not to alter the game’s outcome too severely, but also double-sided in a way that offers a different kind of advantage. This is one of the better catchup mechanisms I’ve seen in any game.”
“I think there is a victory spiral in that the player who pulls ahead first gets more stronger cubes to pick “
They’re basically saying the opposite thing which says a lot. As much as the first piece of feedback says that the design is working as intended, the second piece makes it clear that it is unclear to the players what is going on. This is one of those cases where the perception of a mechanic can matter more than the mechanic itself.
I think the fix for this is going to be making the effects of the mechanic more clear. Its not the most intuitive at the moment. There were also some concerns about the random drawing of cubes sometimes being too unlucky, which I have some ideas about that might also help with the clarity around the soul cubes. I’m going to have to play around with this one though as its less clear cut than the other feedback what to do next.
I’m very happy with all of the feedback I got. Since Umbra Via came in first place, I’m clearly heading in some sort of a good direction. So if I fix up these issues, then that will be the cherry on top. Thank you again to all of the judges!