Craggy Components are Ready!

Finally! Over the last month or two my progress on my various projects has been slower than I would like, and hanging over me in particular has been actually writing a rulebook for my intended entry for this year's print and play wargame design contest on Board Game Geek.  This was the one thing holding me back from moving the game to the "Components Ready" stage of the contest, which means that all elements of the game are, at some level, ready for someone to try them out.

As of this evening, though, I managed to complete a push to get a full draft of that rulebook written and uploaded for people to access.  I need to add illustrations and examples, and I am certain that parts of the rules will be unclear or badly phrased -- and that is before we even get into changes that need to be made due to testing -- but it's at least something.  You have to start somewhere.

If you are interested in finding out more, here is the work in progress thread on Board Game Geek, which includes download links for the rules and other components.


Tricky Business

I recently saw a conversation on Twitter about "WTF is a trick taking game anyway?" (and similar discussions there and elsewhere over the years) and it was really one of those things that reminds me that everyone has different knowledge and experience. Even within hobby gaming, not everyone understands things the same way. I was brought up regularly playing games with standard playing cards, including several variants of the Whist family, the archetypal trick taking games, so the concepts of tricks, trumps, bids, and keeping score on a pad of paper, are just totally natural to me. It is easy for me to forget that other people aren't used to this sort of game.

5♠ was led...

So, what actually is a trick taking game?  Well, it can vary, but in general...
  • Most trick taking games are played using cards, and almost certainly usually using a standard 52 card, 4 suit deck (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs).
  • Players usually have a "hand" of cards, dealt randomly from the deck.
  • A "trick" usually consists of each player selecting and playing one card from their hand. In most of these games, this play happens one at a time, in sequence around the table.
  • Most trick taking games pay attention to the suit of the cards, and you very often have to play the same suit as is lead by the first player, if you can.
  • Somebody wins the trick, very often the winner is the player who played the highest ranked card of the suit led by the first player.
  • Many trick taking games have a "trump" suit, which is usually interpreted as a suit which beats any other suits in a trick. There are many variations on how a trump suit is decided.
  • There is usually a scoring system, generally based on either the number of tricks each player wins, or the actual cards that are won in tricks.  Usually a full game consists of several "hands" where cards are shuffled and dealt afresh each time, and scores are recorded and added up to determine the overall winner.
Over and above all that common stuff (and, for each of those points, I feel certain you could find something that could be described as a trick taking game that breaks the "rule"), there are loads of variants that crop up more or less commonly.  For instance, in the game that I was taught as Slippery Anne (better known to the world as Hearts), the objective is to take the fewest tricks and score the fewest points, but you get a huge bonus if you manage to take all of the tricks. A load of games (in particular, several Whist games) have players bidding for how many tricks they think they can make, and score according to how well they achieve their "contract", 

There are plenty of really cool aspects to this style of game. For me, I love the aspects of figuring out what cards other players have, of trying to "finesse" to win more tricks or points than my hand might naturally be worth, the tension of playing out a hand, and the pace and tempo of most of these games when they are played by experienced players.

Thinking about this reminds me that I have never designed a trick taking game (other than by stretching the definition of the genre to the point of breaking), not even just applying a skin to an existing game, so I think it is about time I changed that and tried making one.  Challenge on...

To be continued...


Four Get Drafty in Pimlico

Last month's Sunday playtest meetup in London got cancelled due to a clash with Fathers' Day, and this month's got rescheduled as its planned date coincided with the Men's Association Football World Cup final, but I was fortunately able to make the new date. Of course, the new date clashed with a big cycling event in the city, which caused travel chaos for some, but seven of us made it, then an eighth, and then a ninth, so all was well.

Before getting to my own game, I got to play a couple of games of a light card game, which is so close to being something I would buy in a heartbeat, and once through of a midweight Euro game, which I had tried an earlier iteration of, and is well on its way to being a great candidate for my game shelf too.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing how both of these turn out.

My game for the day was Drafty Valley, which I had tested a few days earlier as a two player game, and saw that the latest version appeared to be working OK, but seemed weak with only two players. I wanted to see how it fares with more, so was just sitting down as part of a group of three, when a fourth player arrived, making the setup perfect from my point of view.

Getting close to the end of the game.
"What's that you've got there, Grandad?" asks one of the players,
spotting that I am using an old camera rather than my phone.
So, what did I learn? Well, the objective cards are still well out of line, but this is not news -- I haven't actually changed them in the last couple of iterations. More specifically, though, there is currently a class of objective where you just need to have a particular board state (like have roads connecting certain features), and this sat poorly with the players, who all wanted to see objectives that they achieved themselves.

I got some interesting feedback on the market very quickly, and all three of my testers objected to how it worked. The idea is that there is a marker for each good on a number track, and when you buy a good, you pay the amount to the left of the marker, and then move the marker left, which usually increases the value of that good.  Selling works the same, but moving to the right, lowering the value.  The feedback I received was that this seemed unintuitive, and the price should just be the value that the marker is on, and then the marker should adjust accordingly.

This is an odd one, as the players were unanimous in this opinion, and they are clearly correct in their opinion that they found it unintuitive (a playtester's perception of something is always correct, even if the conclusion they come to is arguable), but I still disagree that their model would be better than the one that exists.  From a thematic point of view I would argue that it makes sense that a merchant would buy something at one price, and sell it at a different (higher) one, and I like this model, so I'll stick with it for a little while longer, but if feedback keeps pointing this way I will get ready to slay this particular darling.  It may well be that I just need to make the chart clearer, and describe the values on either side of the marker as the asking price and the offering price, respectively.  We'll see...

On a related matter, shipping (being able to sell a big bulk of goods at a single, often lower, price than the general market offers) was barely used and seemed to be unincentivised (ick, that's a horrible, jargony word), in part due to one player taking control of the port at the start of the game.  I need to have a think about this (and if it is an action that actually adds to the game), and am considering rolling the shipping action into the same action card as the market trading, as they are thematically related, and reducing the number of cards seems cool to me.  Perhaps a better explanation and graphical presentation may help.

There was also a general feeling that people wanted houses to belong to them, rather than just belonging to the board, as with most of the game elements. I think that this is a pity, as I like the general theme of the kingdom being developed as a whole rather than it being about individual players, but I can see where they are coming from, and I think I will have to at least experiment with this, and we talked through a couple of ideas of how this could work.

The final major point, I think, was one that tallies with feedback from a couple of earlier playtests: choosing an action card should give you a decent bonus for choosing it, along the lines of the classic Puerto Rico. So, for instance, if I choose the market trading action, I might be able to do more trades than you are permitted.

The overall theme of feedback from this session was that many aspects of the game just didn't line up with the expectations of the players.  Is this because I have made poor design decisions and need to get more sensible, or because I am trying something different and interesting, and should persist, and maybe figure out better ways to present these aspects? I'm hoping that it's not entirely the former, but even if it is, then I can learn from that.  I will need to reflect more on this but bear that question in mind as I go through the next stages of development.

In the short term, though, my main priorities are to rework the objective cards pretty much from the ground up and look at the "leader bonus" issue.  I think this will almost certainly result in other changes (for instance, I am having a bit of an urge to make a new board, and there's that house ownership thing...) but I have a focus and we'll just see how things go.


Action Valley

Previously in the chronicles of Drafty Valley: I made a game where players draft actions each round and most of those actions trigger different variants of drafting mechanics which result in players producing and selling goods and developing land in search of profit.  Testing suggested that most of the game's structure and flow had promise, but the balance was far enough off to get in the way of testing, and some aspects of the game proved overwhelmingly frustrating for some players.

The game has been on the shelf since UK Games Expo, while I thought about other things for a while, but now it's time to have another run at it.

I know the balance of the objectives in the game is terrible at the moment, but I decided to focus on something else for the moment: the core of the game, the action cards. The way the game has worked so far is that each round there is a selection of over-sized cards on display, each allowing an action, including claiming locations, producing resources, and building things. At the start of the round, each player chooses a card, and they get to take the action first, followed by everyone else. At the end of the round, action cards are replenished from a deck.

It feels a bit weird putting a pic before I've explained the context,
but these are the new action cards.
This proved problematic in a few ways, including:
  • I thought it would be interesting for players to discover the available actions as they go along, but this proved almost universally unpopular as players usually want to know what options will come up in the future as a guide for their choices.
  • Some rounds there were poor combinations of actions available, and often players ended up having little or nothing to do on a turn and not much they could have done about it.
  • The random supply of actions sometimes meant that turn order was the most important factor in the game, and sometimes irrelevant, leading to frustration.
  • Many of the available actions were useful at some stage of the game (for some players) but utterly useless at others. More frustration.
So, what I have done is to strip the small deck of action cards back to just seven of them, mostly with options on them, combining multiple former-cards into one.  I have also decided to not bother putting the full rules for each action on the cards, so they are now down to standard card size, meaning that there can be a row of all of the cards visible at once, without requiring an enormous table.

The mechanism for managing action cards is that at the start of the round, each player selects a card, using the "Small World" style mechanism where you drop a coin onto each card that you skip from one end of the row -- we'll say the left.  If you choose a card with coins on, you get to keep those coins.  Cards slide along to the left as gaps appear.  Then, when actions are resolved, the cards return to the right hand end of the row.

This way, every action is available every round, but the actions which were used last round are more expensive, and ignored actions will gradually become more valuable, until someone can't resist the cash payout. 

Which leaves me at a point where I need to playtest again. I've been doing badly at getting prototypes to the table lately, but am working on getting things going again, so it shouldn't be long before this gets in front of other people...


24 Hours of Heat

Another month, another 24 hour game design challenge. This time the requirement for the contest was the word "heat", which seemed apt given the heatwave we've been seeing recently in the UK and other parts of Europe.  I wasn't really planning to do this one (it's quite a busy time at the moment from a family point of view, with school and music related demands), but I couldn't help but thinking about phrases, puns, and cliches related to heat.  When my brain stumbled across "packing heat" I couldn't let go, and ended up thinking about gangsters going on holiday and packing their luggage, including "heat" alongside their general holiday supplies.

This is a dangerous situation and I spent the next couple of days with the idea bouncing around my head. The rules of the contest are that you can't write anything down until you start your 24 hours, which makes it difficult to put ideas on hold, and it got to the point where I just had to do something.  Luckily on Saturday I had an evening to myself, and on Sunday all I needed to do was accompany my wife and daughter to a Race For Life event, then get the daughter to her dance exam in the afternoon. It would be fine.

I think my prototypes have benefited greatly from my recent acquisition of a colour printer.

By the end of the evening I had made a set of components (the classic deck of 54 cards -- handy because it is a reasonable 6 sheets for a print & play set, and also pretty much coincides with a standard sheet of cards at a proper card manufacturer) and the basic rules written down. To be honest I had been more than a bit woolly about specific rules in my initial planning, but working on it broke the game down into two phases: one where you pack your luggage (collect/play cards) and one where some twiddling about occurs and scoring takes place. The idea was that you needed a set of holiday items in order to finish the game, but you won by having the most money.

I had already tried out other approaches in my head: top were some kind of push your luck system, or something where you could bluff about what was in your luggage and challenge each other.  Neither of these really crystalised though.

I didn't manage to get "real person" playtesting this time, but did some solo testing, with me playing multiple hands of cards at the same time, and this was effective in trying out a few options and seeing how different ways of playing with the components worked out.  In the end, my plans for the first half of the game survived with minor modifications, and the second half got changed quite significantly into a form of trick taking game using the luggage (cards) you had collected in the first half.

Achievement unlocked: my first trick taking game. Sort of.

Behold! The final card types. For now, at least. 
So, despite the hot, sticky weather we are having here, I did manage to get the first draft of another game sorted, formatted for print & play, and made available. It's always a good feeling to make that happen, even if that is all this game will ever be. Hopefully I'll get a chance to give it a proper test soon and decide if it has a future in any form.

If you are interested, my entry post for the contest is here, and includes download links for the rules and cards.


Board of Craghold

This week I have been spending most of my design time working on The Battle for Craghold, my planned entry for the wargame design contest on BGG. I managed a solo playtest of the current version of the game and found some issues to work on, got to work on the rulebook, and made some more progress with the board.

Absolutely not final, but starting to feel like a proper game board.
So, the board is now at the level where it is substantially done, but needs more than a little tidying up, and may need significant changes based on playtest results, but it at least looks like a (rather amateurish) board that could be used for playing on.

Creating the board has been an interesting learning process, which involved a lot of points where I should have probably done something different, like doing a lot more of the work in a vector art package rather than going more or less straight to the GIMP for painting and the likes.

So, most of the work here was done with the GIMP, which is pretty much an open source analog of Photoshop.  I don't have training in using this sort of software, and the only experience I have is for very basic work, so using a big, powerful tool for a pretty big project was a bit daunting.  Recent experience, though, has taught me that building a project in a series of layers is really effective and allows for a lot of flexibility, so I went all-in on this. So the grassy background is one layer, the hex grid is another, the city walls yet another, and so on. Then I can tweak the composite image with comparative ease, upgrading and replacing elements whenever I need to, for instance. A side benefit of this is that I can easily make two versions of the map: the one pictured above, and one without the green grass or the grey city background, which would thus be much more printer-friendly, with just a few clicks.

This board is nearly A2 size (it's about 54cm x 34cm), so needs to be broken down to print on A4 sheets, partly because the contest rules demand that you mustn't need to print anything larger than A4 or US letter size, but mainly because I can't print larger than that myself and there's no point me designing prototype components that I can't use.  This was a bit of a challenge until I found a handy tool that works on my Linux computer: PosteRazor, which can take an image file (I exported my working image as a jpeg) and output it as a set of PDFs with configurable borders and overlaps between the tiles.

So far I have been slack at writing up a rulebook for this game.  Even in the early stages, with rules constantly in flux, writing down rules can be very helpful.  You can always change things as you go, and depending on the tool you use for writing rules (I use Google Docs for working documents) you may have a versioning system built in, so it can be easy to roll back to earlier versions.  Up until now my written rules have just been a list of combat factors (you get bonus dice in combat for these reasons...), so I have started working on turning this into a full draft of the rules. Still a lot to do there, but it's now high on my priorities.

The other priority I have is a relatively straightforward reworking of the unit tokens, adjusting the quantities of some of them and adding a "leader" unit for each side in the battle, which will link in to most of the "special power" actions that I am starting to introduce. More on those another day...


Back to the Track

It seems to be developing into an annual tradition, posting each summer about making a game based on the Corlea trackway in County Longford, Ireland.  So, this year's post comes from a little thinking about the game and reworking the prototype based on notes from the last playtest (nearly a year ago) and the intervening time spent away from it, thinking about other things.

So far, 2018 seems to have been a bit of a year of going back to some of the old projects and applying refreshed (and more experienced) brain cells to some old problems that needed some new insight. I'm totally standing by this approach.  Some other designers seem to be very good at concentrating on one design and iterating until it is done.  As the last few years of posts on this blog attest, I tend to flit around, concentrating on one or two projects for a while, then moving on to others.  Some games get revisited and progressed later, and some just get buried and forgotten.  If I needed to rely on game design for income (and thankfully I don't) I might need to work differently, but for now this seems an effective way for me to keep moving.

About the middle of the game, with a couple of fresh trackway sections built. Green to play...

My latest revision of Corlea includes the following changes:
  • I have dropped the "recruit workers" and "produce food" actions, and combined the remaining "village" actions (train workers, craft offerings, and king's favour, which all provide cards that might help you) into a single action, while keeping them as separate locations for the purposes of assigning worker cubes.
  • As a result of this, I have reduced the number of action spaces on the trackway board segments from eight to six.
  • Instead of having a "shop front" of available cards when you use the village actions, you draw a number of cards from the relevant deck and select one to keep. The number of cards you draw is equal to the number of worker cubes you have in that space, so the more you take the action, the more control you have over its outcome.
  • To control the difficulty (number of workers required) of each of the scoring actions, I am now using a die (d6) for each action location. If there are enough workers, the location is scored and the die rerolled; otherwise you get a small individual score and reduce the value on the die.
  • And there are a load of changes to cards, basically to take into account this set of changes, as many of the old cards no longer make sense.
Having diligently worked these changes into a new prototype, I sat down to run a solo playtest of the game, with me controlling each of four different "virtual players" to at least exercise the mechanisms and see how things went before I try putting the game in front of real people. A game like this is reasonably easy to play solo in this way: whose turn is next is immediately apparent from the state of the board, and what limited hidden information exists is not game breaking if I know all of it.

Half an hour or so later and I had...

Oh God oh God oh God oh God... This game is terrible! I suck at game design! It's never going to work. Why do I bother? Sob sob...

OK, so it's not quite as bad as that, but it really isn't any good as things stand. The thing is that this game is very much in the "Euro game" school of design, a style of game that centres on resource management, creating efficiencies, controlling areas of influence, indirect player competition, and so on. This sort of game usually builds on a number of mechanical systems which lock together to make a machine that players each influence parts of, and much of the engagement of the game should come from figuring out how to interact with the parts of this machine that you are working with better than the other players manage with their parts. I'm aiming at Corlea being towards the simpler end of the spectrum of games along these lines, but as it goes at the moment, player choices don't seem particularly meaningful or interesting, and often the machine simply stutters and stalls.

From what I can make out, this is something that hits all boardgame designers, pretty much all the time. The trick is figuring out either how to move forward, or how to get over the sunk cost of getting the game this far and give up on it, either temporarily or permanently.

I think that there is enough in the game that is usable, and I don't really have experience developing this type of game, even though I love playing them, so I am choosing to push onwards for now. The key mechanical problems at the moment, as I see them are:

  • While players should have to work to move resources through the system, right now it is all just too slow.
  • The village actions provide handy bonuses, but right now the opportunity cost to go for them are just too great in comparison to the benefits.
  • The game start is a bit slow, so it takes a few turns for things to get moving, and that first part is tedious, so it should be skipped.
  • It's not clear that there are any real strategic decisions to make.
The first three of these points should be relatively easily addressable, but the fourth could be a big problem if things don't change when I deal with the others.  So I will have a go at dealing with the issues I have identified so far and see where that takes me.