Designer Diary: Agency

This week I’m going to continue my designer diary. Previously I introduced Agency, a game I started (but moved beyond) with the restrictions for our Build A Board Game event, which we ran in August last year. Agency is a game about marketing; the player represents an advertising agency, looking to fulfil contracts in the market to earn cash. The player with the most cash at the end of the game, is the most successful. Just like real life cash is how we measure success, cash and victory points.

Before continuing, I’d like to introduce some key concepts from the game.

  • Demographics” are the people you’re selling to, represented by coloured cubes.
  • Platforms” are the places where the cubes are placed. There is a maximum of 5 cubes in each platform. Right now the platforms are lifted from real life: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Contracts” are how you make money. These are cards that rewards you when you play them into a demographic. The amount of money is dictated by how many cubes you match on the card.

Initial concept

In the initial designs of the game, demographics were generated each turn by dice rolls, which players then drafted into the different platforms. They could then cash in contracts from their hands to earn money from the demographics in that particular platform. The biggest issue was players not being able to take advantage of the demographics they drafted into the platforms. In the first iteration, the demographics were removed when a card was played, representing those people having bought something and not wanting to buy more. This meant that a player could spend 4 turns setting up their desired demographics, but have another player snatch the “sale” from under their nose. In the second iteration, the demographics stayed, but they had a fixed amount of income available, which players could increase with an action. But the problem remained; the player could spend a few turns insuring the demographic had the right amount of money, in the right platform, but still, it could be snatched away from them. It was a fundamental problem with the design.

I wanted to have the players restricted in some way, unable to earn limitless money. The easiest way to do this was to restrict the income from the “demographic” side, or so I thought. During a playtest session, a playtester suggested removing the restriction from the demographic side altogether. Clearly it wasn’t working, so I agreed and removed it.

Other Issues

At the same time, I wasn’t happy with how players acquired cards. In the previous prototypes, players had just been dealt hands, with the players unable to acquire extra cards during the game. This was partially by design, and partially because I didn’t want to be making huge amounts of prototype cards that I might need to remake in the future. I was toying around with the idea of an auction, but that didn’t make sense thematically. If an agency was bidding on contracts, why would a company awarding a contract give the contract to the highest bidder? Surely they would go to the lowest bidder?


One of the contract iterations

What happened next was an attempt to fix both of the previously mentioned problems. I decided there would be four companies in the game. Each card (representing a contract) would belong to one of these four companies. Players would bid by reverse auction (also know as a Dutch auction); the player who bid the lowest would win the contract. When you completed a contract by playing it into a platform, the money from the contract would go to the company, not the player. If the company couldn’t pay you for the contract, then you didn’t get the money! This, I thought, would create the scarcity I wanted, and would also encourage the players to get the most money possible, to ensure they could pay for any future contracts the players won. In addition, the players would get a “favour” token for that company. The favour token could be exchanged mid-game to either make your bid count as $2 less than it actually was (i.e. I bid $6, and exchange in my token, making it count as $4) or at the end of the game counted as victory points. The cards also generated recurring income for the companies for a number of turns (until replaced) meaning the company kept making money.

Roll on the playtest!

This playtest was actually kind of successful! The economy created by the reverse auction and trying to manage the company’s cash flow was a big plus. Some things that didn’t go so well, for me as well as the players, are listed below, and what I did to fix them:

  • Players had never really been fans of rolling dice for demographics. It was time to get rid of it. → I replaced each player rolling dice for demographics with a single draw of demographic cubes from a bag.
  • Players wanted a bit more interaction: perhaps the ability to deliberately do poorly to potentially impact other players. → I changed the contract cards so they had different levels. As an action you can increase the card’s level. Higher levels result in higher rewards.
  • I wasn’t happy with completed contracts sitting with a company, generating income, potentially generating income indefinitely, waiting to be replaced. I thought they should ‘age’ in some way. → The contract card levels fixed this problem too. Each turn, after the card generates it’s income, it goes down a level. When it reaches 0, it’s removed.
  • I didn’t really like just giving players a list of actions and tell the to do them in order. → I added workers, making it essentially a worker placement game. You place a worker on a space to take that action (bid on a contract, increase contract level, place demographics into a social media platform, put contact to social media platform, hire new worker).
  • There was no reason not to bid as low as possible on a contract, even down to 0. → Workers fixed this too. Each player needs to pay wages to each worker at the end of the round. For a bit of realism, I also added that you have to pay commission (to the salesperson who went out and won the contract) for every contract you win that turn.

I used fictional companies in my prototypes

With these fixes under my belt, I went into the next playtest, and again, it went pretty well! The biggest issue that came out of it was the lack of motivation to increase the level of a contract. One player could just keep fulfilling low level contracts, gather favours and win the game. We instantly came up with a fix: award more favours to players who complete higher level contracts. I also feel like the player should get some kind of recurring royalty for a contract that generates a lot of income over a longer period of time. These ideas have been implemented but not been tested yet.

I’ve a sinking feeling that Agency, or what Agency is right now, might not be satisfying or engaging enough to be a full game! That problem, if it is indeed a problem, is something I haven’t figured out how to fix yet…

I would love to hear your feedback on this article, or for you to share any game design experience you have! Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter, our Facebook page or on our Instagram.

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