2021-09-30

A Village with Fewer Darlings

 There is a bit of clich├ęd advice from the writing world that has carried over to the field of game design: "Kill your darlings". The idea is that if there are characters, plot elements, etc. that you love but don't further the overall story, then they should go. In the case of game design, that mechanism or component that you feel is totally awesome but which gets in the way of the intended play experience... axe it!

One of the more contentious parts of The Village on the River -- the "flip and write" game I am working on with Chris O'Regan -- is the way that resources are gained. The game was initially designed to work with a standard deck of playing cards, where the number cards of three suits represented resources that you could acquire, with the twist that each number indicated a unique "block" of that resource. So, you could claim the 7 of Diamonds card and circle the 7 of Diamonds spot on your playsheet, which meant that you gained a unit of money which you could spend later. There were some other ways to gain resources too, which meant that you could choose a spot to circle regardless of that number. If, on a previous turn, you had gained money and represented this by circling the 7 of Diamonds, then if the matching card came up later, you could not choose to take it as that block was already claimed.

This was something that grew out of the use of the playing cards, and stayed when we revised the game to use custom cards where the "suits" were actually people, stone and money rather than Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds. Spades became construction actions, if you are interested. Also the numbers turned into letters, but that is even less relevant.

My playsheet from the latest test. And a win!

Anyway, some players have enjoyed the quirkiness of this system and the texture it imparts to play, but overwhelmingly players have bounced off it, sometimes because they just find the rule unintuitive or hard to understand, and sometimes for other reasons like it feeling like the game was sometimes randomly punishing them for choosing the wrong thing and having no information about that choice in advance.

So... Eventually we decided that we could at least try the idea out. All we needed to do is play the game but ignore the letters both on the cards and on the play sheet and see how it went.

The first play doing this felt OKish to me, but a bit wrong to Chris. One of the things we had observed was that the method we had built in for players to keep track of the resource cards that showed up in the game (should they so wish) now felt really wrong, and our standard ways of playing just didn't feel quite right. 

We left it a few weeks after that, with both of us doing other things and not getting around to further work or meetings. Then the next time we played, with a little distance from the original decision, everything pretty much fell into place. The resource tracking still didn't sit right for us, but otherwise we both felt that the game was easier to play but still felt like it had decent levels of challenge.

Our current thinking is that we will try testing the game with other people with the simplified rules, which looks likely to become the "standard" way to do things. We think that the "resource letters" may be kept as a sort of advanced play mode, but we'll see how things go.  



2021-08-31

Expo-sure

 Another in my series of long-after-the-fact blog posts... 

So the weekend straddling the end of July and beginning of August was UK Games Expo, for the first time since 2019 and two months after the date it would normally have been held. A few months earlier, around the time when the new dates were announced, information was also circulated about how Covid-19 control measures would be in place and details would be announced nearer the date. Then, some time later, the UKGE website was updated to suggest that the controls would be essentially optional, and then over the following couple of weeks there were further updates that brought us to a state that more-or-less reflected the original "play with confidence" position, having passed through various states of confusion en route.

For the last few years, I have focused my visits to the Expo around Playtest UK and the playtesting area that is organised each year by the awesome Rob Harris, who has claim to being the primary Rob for these events, with me just slotting in as a backup. This year I went a little further and was one of the core team for the playtest zone, meaning I was essentially working there full time. I wasn't planning on any formal meetings with publishers this time, so this worked well for me overall.

The preview event in progress.
The yellow mats in the foreground are for the open play area
to encourage social distancing.

After setting up the playtest area on Thursday, I went to the "press preview" event, something I had not done before. Basically this is open to anyone with a press or exhibitor pass (I had the latter as a playtest volunteer), and is an area of tables where exhibitors can show their latest releases, etc., and have a couple of hours where they can chat with folk in a quieter and less cluttered environment than the trade hall. I'm not a press person in any sense, but it was nice to meet and chat with a few people about their games.

UKGE as a whole was significantly smaller than usual, with less trade hall space, bigger spaces between stands, and more unused spaces (though there was a nice area of picnic benches near the food stands in the main hall, which I appreciated), but the Friday at the playtest area felt as busy as usual. We did have fewer tables than usual and those we had were spaced out more, so clearly we weren't as busy, but there was a steady flow of players turning up and for most of the day, the game designers were not having to wait long to fill a game. This more or less continued for the weekend, but I think was particularly noticeable on the Friday.  We discussed this a bit and a few folk had the impression that a lot of people felt that there was less pressure to see everything in the trade hall (there was less, after all) and so were more available for playtesting. I don't know how true that was, but it was the subject of some pondering in general.

Not as packed as usual, but still a very big event by any other standard.

On Friday evening was the publisher-designer speed dating event, which I took part in a few years ago. This time I was dragooned in on behalf of Playtest UK to provide a little extra stewarding and general dogsbody effort. As it turned out, apart from helping to arrange tables there wasn't much I needed to do, so I was able to tour the room and have chats with most of the designers during down time - there were more designers than publishers in the room, so there were a few periods for each designer when they were just waiting for something to happen. It was interesting to see the variety of games being pitched, varying from a very toylike game that was really aimed at families with youngish kids (I think this was somewhat out of place given the publishers present) up to a fairly heavy thematic Euro. Hats off to all those presenting their pitches -- I hope at least some of them had some luck from their efforts.

After the speed dating I met up with some friends in the open play area, which was of a similar size to the trade hall and, somewhat unusually for my experience of these events, every time I went through there was plenty of space for anyone who wanted to play, even though there was always a good buzz of people there. Let's just say, I am glad to have finally been introduced to the epic trading game, Sidereal Confluence, but by that time of night my brain was struggling to keep up.

The Playtest Zone in full flow.
Note the pretty universal mask use and spacing between tables.

Saturday was pretty much more of the same during the day, but I did have the opportunity to do some of my own playtesting. Actually, one of my co-designers, Chris O'Regan, spent the morning running through several tests of our game, The Village on the River, and got some really useful feedback which we discussed a week or so later. Then in the afternoon I had a slot with a family (with adult kids) playing Grab Bag Zoo, the game I am working on with Mike Harrison-Wood. GBZ is a short, real-time cooperative game that went down really well with this family (they ended up playing the game TEN TIMES in a row!) but it was apparent that it is just too difficult and intense for the playing-with-younger-kids audience we would like it to work for.

Grab Bag Zoo - you can't tell from a still photo, but this 
got really quite loud and excited during play.

That evening was pretty chilled, going out for burgers with Rob Prime and then playing a couple of lightweight games that I had bought that day.

Finally on Sunday, after working at the playtest area for the morning, I met up with my family, who had come up for the final day as we have been doing for the last few years. This was the point that I actually had a chance to play a couple of demo games on trade stands with my daughter, buy a few extra things, and then go home, exhausted.

Of course, COVID-19 provided one final little game to play: on the way home, I got "pinged" by the official COVID app, telling me that I had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus and that I had to self-isolate for the next nine days. Fortunately I was able to work from home for that time, as was my wife, so it had little impact other than making me a bit stir-crazy and prompting me to learn how to make and drink the South American drink, mate, but that is another story. None of us tested positive or developed symptoms ourselves, and I haven't heard of anyone getting ill who I was knowingly in contact with, although I do a number of them were also required to self-isolate.

So, all in all, I am very glad to have gone to UK Games Expo. I admit I was a bit nervous beforehand, but it all turned out well, and in particular I got a lot out of the opportunity to see and catch up with a load of old friends and meet a few people who I have met online over the last year or so and had never met in person. It's sad that a lot of people didn't go, but given the coronavirus issues, I can't fault anyone for their decisions. Hopefully next year will be closer to normal, but for this year, a huge thanks to the organising team and volunteers for making the event probably as good as it could have been.

2021-07-26

IDLEcon 2: Clockwise Boogaloo

Back in the dark days of December, the lovely Michael Fox, game designer, Twitch streamer and generally Good Guy, hosted a two day game jam called IDLEcon, during which time a bunch of us created something-and-write games and then played them live with participation of the audience of his stream. I collaborated with Chris O'Regan to make a game we called The Village on the River, which we have continued to work on since.

Back in the not-so-dark days of late June, Michael hosted a follow-up event, IDLEcon 2.

This time the format was different. While the original took place in the "dead time" between Christmas and new year, with most of us in some form of a lockdown, the second run acknowledged that most of us had work or other commitments, so the idea was to spend one weekend creating games, and the next weekend playing them; the intervening time allowed for more development or design, or just getting on with your life. The challenge this time was to make a game that could be played on-stream, with Michael, as host, playing with or against the people in the chat. 

Once again, the dual focus of the event was Michael's Twitch stream and his Discord server, where folk could chat, discuss ideas, team up, and so on.  I put a half-formed idea of a game into a channel and ended up talking with Bez (she of Yogi fame, as well as much else), throwing together a very rough virtual prototype (actually using a shared Google Drawing to work as board and counters) and spending the afternoon experimenting, testing and iterating until we felt we had something that was decent enough fun but needed "proper" playtesting.  I didn't have much available time over the following week, so we pretty much left it there, other than making sure that there was a usable virtual prototype on Screentop.gg and the rules were written up.

Michael playing the Clockwise Robots game on his Twitch stream.
Michael attempts to avoid the robots on stream.

The basics of the game are that one player (intended to be the host of the stream) has the task of moving their character from one corner of a gridded board to the opposite corner. This is complicated by the five robots which move around pre-set routes, the distance each of them moves being tied to the results of a poll that is run for viewers to vote on. We have some general ideas about how this could translate to a tabletop version, and may work on that later, but for now it was just a game aimed at the specific challenge of the day.

The following weekend was set aside for playing the games on stream. I, however, was camping in a field, half way across the country so my daughter could take part in a folk music related activity, so couldn't really take part properly. I did get good enough mobile signal to be able to watch a bit of the stream live, and then caught up on the rest using Twitch's video-on-demand facility a couple of days later, though Bez was able to take part on the day.

So the game actually worked. There were a good few people taking part in the chat submitting their votes, so the polls actually looked like they had meaningful results, and there were points when the voters were trying to make sure that certain results occurred. It got interesting when Michael observed that the rules did not prohibit him from taking part in the votes, which mean that in some circumstances, he was able to force, or prevent, certain results.

It turns out that the way polls are implemented in Twitch, the tallies are shown while voting is taking place, which made it both easier for the chatters to know what was going on, and for Michael to throw his spanner into the works. This, combined with the predictability of the robot movements made things a little less than ideal, particularly in the second play of the game -- though the fact that everyone elected to play a second time was hugely gratifying in itself. There was a lot of discussion though about ways to introduce more chaos and unpredictability, as well as generally strengthening the game, so I think this went really well for a first "proper" play.

We've not returned to this design in the weeks since, but I think it could be interesting to have another look at it some time and see what we can make of it. Michael suggested that it could be good as a mass-play convention game, with people as playing pieces and some form of crowd voting, and that sounds like it could be great if we found the right people to partner with to make it happen. My thoughts are that it could be a one-versus-many tabletop game, with the "many" having cards with varying numbers of votes or moves for multiple robots, and everyone selects what they will play at the same time, hoping that they can coordinate without discussing the actual cards they have in hand.

Anyway, this was another enjoyable exercise, both from the angle of working with another game designer (a friend for years, but whom I had never created anything with) and of working with interesting restrictions and requirements. It's entirely possible that we'll never be able to make a commercial product out of this, but the creation can often be worthwhile on its own.



2021-06-24

They Came, They Played, They Built

It has been well over a month since my collaborator, Chris O'Regan, and I set up an experimental play-by-blog playtest of our flip-and-write game, The Village on the River, and it's about time I got off my backside and wrote something about how it went.

If you remember, the game involves a series of rounds, in each of which, three cards are flipped from a deck of cards and you, as a player, get to make use of two of them in order to build your own little village, and what you build (and how you place it) gives you a score that you can compare with others when the deck has run out. We set up a blog post on Board Game Geek, which had a pre-set series of images of these card flips, each hidden behind "spoiler" tags, so you could go through, revealing one set of cards at a time, and play the game that way.

Over the next few days I received messages through various channels, including email, Facebook and Discord, though nobody actually commented on the blog post directly. Everyone sent an image of their play sheet, and quite a few folk sent comments about their experience. One person even went so far as to send a video of them playing the game, with the chatter with their partner about decisions being made. 

Eight playsheets, with a variety of approaches.

Just by way of a quick detour, I have heard a lot of people (most notably Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic and much more) talking about having videoed remote playtesting as a really useful tool. This was my first experience of this, and I can totally see how useful this can be. If the players can relax enough to not worry about the camera, you can get so much information about what people are doing, what is causing them problems, and so on.

The Village on the River is, like a lot of random-and-write games, essentially a multiplayer solitaire; what you do does not affect other players at all, and the challenge is trying to make the best use of the random sequence of events that is available to all players. As such, while it appears ideally suited to solo play, the problem is that what constitutes a good score can vary greatly from game to game. Our observation from earlier playtests is that a score above 40 is generally very good and puts you in with a good chance of winning, but sometimes the winning score (even with competent players) is around 30. 

So, with that in mind, while you could set thresholds for winning or losing (and we may end up doing that), what you really need is other players' scores against which to compare yourself. The more other players there are (and the game can, in principle, scale infinitely), the better idea you have of how good your score is, and the better idea we, as designers, have of how the game performs. 

The eight sheets we received had scores ranging from 17 to 49, with four players in the 40's. There were a few small mistakes in scoring and at least a couple of players had misunderstood parts of the game until it was too late. There also wasn't a single approach that the higher scoring players had all found: several different strategies resulted in competitive scores.

Overall, we were very happy with how things turned out, particularly with the comments that helped us home in on the elements that were causing problems.  

Our big issue here was in communicating some of the rules, so it is easy to miss some parts or interpret them in a way that wasn't intended. This is something that was clear from some of the playsheets, and made even more so by the comments and reports that folk were kind enough to send. Now, with things like this, it might be that your graphical presentation makes some things less intuitive than you would like, the wording or organisation of the rules might not be clear enough, or the rules themselves might be the problem and you need to change to something more intuitive to the average player. It is too early for us to be sure on this, but we are working to improve the first two points initially.

Aside from this, though, there was a general sense of, "yeah, I'd play again", which is very helpful for morale. Of course, we'll have to see how that works out in practice. And I think that, based on this experiment, we'll be having another go at this format of testing pretty soon.

2021-05-15

Doctor* Rob's Play-Along Blog

So here is something of an experiment. You may remember that I was working with the awesome Chris O'Regan on a "flip and write" game, The Village on the River, which we started at "IDLECon" at the end of last year (and I now realise I haven't posted about since). We have kept working on this since, tweaking here and twiddling there, and the game seems to work pretty well, but although we have had a couple of plays with a load of people (the game in principle can scale to any player count), it has mostly been tested with just Chris and myself. This results in a few shortcomings: firstly that things that make sense (or are fun) to us don't necessarily make sense (or fun) to everyone else, but secondly, we can't be sure that there aren't huge imbalances in play.

 A not-terribly-impressive result for me on a recent play.

When I talk about balance, by the way, I mostly mean that everything in the game can contribute to a winning strategy, and there is nothing in the game that is absolutely essential for a win. In this context, I am mostly thinking about the buildings and special characters, and I would be OK with things like not being able to win unless you have dwellings in your village, etc. In recent versions of the game it does seem that some ways of playing often result in good scores more than others, but I'm OK with that as long as nothing is either essential or useless.

Anyway, one of the strongest ways of testing for this is to just play an enormous amount of games and see if we can see patterns in the way people play. More specifically, in the case of this game, it is really helpful to see the results of big games so, for example, seeing the way a dozen people interpret and exploit the same set of cards.

Back around the IDLECon time, another collaborator, Alex Cannon, set up a test for a roll and write game he had designed by posting a series of die roll results on his website (actually doing several of these sequences), with the rolls hidden behind "folds" so that a player can click through and play the same sequence as other players, and so the scores can be meaningfully compared.

This all seems like a good solution to the problem and I have finally got around to having a try at this. Chris and I had a run through the rules and the playsheet to make sure we had a stable version to share. So it was a matter of how to set up and share the sequence.

As you may know, we have implemented our custom card deck on Screentop.gg, which allows easy iteration and sharing, including allowing any number of people to watch the card flips in progress and play along easily. I set up a play session with this virtual prototype and ran through the deck, three cards at a time, taking a screenshot of each set of cards.

One turn's worth of card flips.

The Blogger platform I post this blog on doesn't seem to have an easy way to handle the staged reveals of each turn, but it turns out that Board Game Geek's blog system includes "spoiler" tags which are pretty much perfect for the purpose. And so, I present to you: The Village on the River playtest play-along #1.

As I said at the start this is an experiment and it relies on goodwill of other people, possibly even more than regular playtesting as we are asking people to do something without guidance or a schedule or anything, but we hope it will be both helpful for us and at least a bit of fun for testers. If you are up for taking a look, maybe playing, or maybe just commenting, that would be amazing.


* Not a doctor.


2021-05-09

Learning to be a Mentor

This is just a very quick post about the Tabletop Mentorship Program, a scheme run by the wonderful Mike Belsole and Grace Kendall over the last couple of years or so. The idea is that they connect people who do just about anything within the games industry, or who want to, from game design to illustration to podcasting or reviewing, with more experienced members of the community who can help them take their next steps. A mentoring period is over three months, during which the mentor and mentee agree to meet (via an online call of some sort) at least six times, for at least half an hour each time.

After discussing the scheme with a couple of friends, I signed up as a mentor for the January run of the scheme. I must admit that I was somewhat nervous, as I am still close to the bottom of the industry ladder, and wasn't sure how much I could offer, but reassured by the friends, and the information on the scheme's website, I gave it a go.

I was matched with a designer who was working on their first "serious" design (they had tinkered with others, but not got far with them), and we hit it off well on a personal level, and over the three months it was great to see the designer preparing their game and pitch for showing to publishers. They were well motivated and, I think, just needed a little reassurance on a few things and some pointers based on at least some experience of interacting with publishers, which I do have a bit of.

Overall, I found my first time as a mentor to be a really enjoyable experience. My mentee claims I was helpful, and I felt that I learned a lot from the process as well. The scheme also has great support through a Discord server, through which you can get help, advice, or just chat, plus there are regular talks on YouTube (some streamed live, some recorded), interactive discussions, and social meetups.

Applications are now open for the next round of mentorships (which will be the last for this year as the organisers will then be working on restructuring the scheme to be a long-term prospect), and I have already signed up again. If you think you could offer something as a mentor (if you have any experience in any games business related activity, there is a good chance you can!), or would like to find a mentor for yourself (or both, in fact!), it's well worth looking on their website to find out more. Applications for this round are only open until 17th May, so there isn't a lot of time.

2021-04-27

An Ancient Space Station Rediscovered

I was having a clear up the other day and found some components stashed in a pile. Not a playable prototype, or even part of one, but a few elements of one of my early game projects that I was trying to build back in 2014, not long after I started this blog, a game that I called Space Station 7, which was about shenanigans between rival peoples/species on a space station that may or may not resemble something that appeared on TV in the 90's. I have the bones of a rules document in my Google Drive, a basic nanDECK script and associated data file, and a few blog posts discussing my thoughts (you can see everything with the SpaceStation7 tag, if you are interested) along with another, partially-written draft that I never finished, but includes some more ideas I wanted to throw in.

After working on this project for a few months I ran out of steam and inspiration and moved onto other things. For instance, it was early 2015 when I first discovered the 24 hour design contest and shifted a lot of my focus to actually getting games to a playable state quickly, which led indirectly to me getting involved in Playtest UK meetups, and the rest is history.

Nothing wrong with prototypes like this.

So I was clearly biting off more than I could chew at the time. I think the game was heading towards being a mid-weight, Euro-ish design that, if I had managed it, would have certainly had way too many weird bits and exceptions. Either than or it would have been utterly dull. 

I have a lot more experience now (though still have plenty of weaknessed) and finding this stuff has reawakened my interest in the project. Having read through the old blog posts and the rules (such as they are), I think there is still something there that I could work with. 

In summary, what we have is:

  • Action is centred on a space station, but players also have their own homeworlds and colonies.
  • Players have "workers" who are essentially ambassadors and other representatives of their species, which can visit various locations each round to undertake actions.
  • Actions are actually triggered by card play, and "workers" have to be in appropriate locations to take advantage of the card plays (e.g. you need a representative in the Council Chamber to partake in debates and votes).
  • Actions take a while to come to fruition and need to "develop" by playing other actions or simply waiting. Some of these actions might be played face-down as covert actions.
  • Play of actions may be "programmed" each round and revealed in stages.
  • Assassinations (of workers/representatives) happen, but the role of the victim is refilled by the homeworld, so they are not lost for ever.
  • Taking direct actions against other players can result in "grudge" tokens being exchanged, indicating tensions between worlds, and can make certain other actions harder or easier.
  • A was also considering a small, semi-random, semi-set deck of cards to provide a series of events that provide a scenario or plot arc for the game, a bit like having an external threat-of-the-week in a TV show to interact with while they go about their regular intrigues and shenanigans.
I'm planning on sleeping on this and seeing if the Enthusiasm Beast takes over. I have plenty of other projects to be working on, but one more can't hurt, can it?