Craghold Result

You may remember that earlier in the year I made a kinda-wargame, The Battle for Craghold, that I didn't get to a state I was really happy with, but I did enter into the Board Game Geek Wargame Print and Play contest.  Well, the results came out a few days ago.
Re-using an old pic, but this is pretty much the game as submitted.
It turns out that I came joint third in three categories: best 2+ player game (i.e. not solo), best short game (in this context it's about 90 minutes or shorter to be eligible), and best game in this year's theme (fantasy and sci-fi).  This means that I must have picked up at least some votes, so many thanks to anyone who voted for my game.

As I said, the game isn't really up to scratch in my opinion, and needs a whole lot of work to be what it should be, so the question is, will I put in the effort to complete the job?  I can't say for sure, but I do quite like the game as it stands and would like to get it to be a solid game that I properly enjoy. I learnt a lot in the process of creating it, so the effort was not wasted, but it's on my list of ones to come back to at some point down the line...


Of Dragons and Castles

On Saturday it was Dragonmeet, a one-day games convention in London, with a significant focus on roleplaying games, but also a lot of space given over to other forms of tabletop gaming, including board games, with a load of boardgame traders and publishers in the trade hall, and loads of demo games and open gaming space.  Playtest UK was, as usual, running an area of five tables for designers to test their prototypes, and I was along to test one of my games as well as to help out in the playtesting area as best I could.

Actually that helping out bit, while it involved a lot of standing and talking, and had me physically exhausted by the end, wasn't too difficult as a steady flow of interested people coming past meant that the designers never had very long to wait before they had volunteers to try out and give feedback on their games.

The Playtest Zone just getting up and running in the morning.
Thanks to Rob Harris of Playtest UK for the photo.
The game I took along to test was Castle War, which I was hoping to get a couple of plays of in the two hour testing session I had been allocated: I am aiming to make it playable within half an hour, with maybe five or ten minutes to teach, so allowing for it to overrun a bit and some time for feedback, I figured I had a chance.

In the event, it took almost exactly an hour to play with the two very fine volunteers who joined me.  OK, so they weren't hurried in their way of playing, but even so the game did go on a bit.  And adding in the teaching and feedback time, I decided to call it a day afterwards.

My testers were very helpful in their discussion, but as is usually the case, the real gold comes from watching what happens to the game state as we go along and how the players behave and interact with the components and each other.  Throughout the game the players seemed engaged and invested, and didn't seem to have a problem with the game taking longer than hoped for.  Sure, they had issues here and there, but were willing to roll with it, albeit pointing out the times when they had a terrible hand of cards or felt that their options had been reduced to the point of being frustrating.

About a third of the way through the game, brought to you in Blurryvision.
Aside from the fact that my half-hour game took an hour, the issues I noted down included that using the "withdraw" tactic meant that you could end up with so many cards in hand that you lose control of conflict resolutions, all the event cards were drawn by one player, while the other had too many tactics, and the "1 Supply" cards were entirely redundant (I should have spotted that before play!).  The tricky issues to solve, I think, are the ones related to drawing a poor hand of cards, and I may need to find a way to mitigate this, but the rest are relatively easily addressable.

As it turns out I was able to try out some changes a couple of days later, but that is another story...


Castle, Castle, Castle...

I've been making a little more progress with my 2-player game about castle sieges and battles during the 12th century.  I had previously done a little light testing with a small, hand-made card set, and then spent a while setting up a nanDECK script and data file to build a "full" deck that should allow a proper play through.

By way of a sanity test, my daughter, Miss B, had a play of the new set, and this seemed to work reasonably well (and earned the coveted accolades of "not terrible" and "better than the last version"), so I felt okay about taking the game out of the house for more testing.

At the monthly weekend playtest meetup in London I had two fine people giving the game a shakedown.  We cut the game off a little short in order to allow time for playing someone else's prototype (a very entertaining game about moving cows into a field and trying to get them past a bovicidal rival farmer), but was able to see the game in play and have some very useful feedback discussions.
Version 2, and the second castle from the right is looking in serious trouble.

Overall, the testers felt that the game did offer them interesting decisions, but the combat part of the game seemed complicated and hard to understand (the game tries to combine a rock-paper-scissors contest of tactical orders with a comparison of relative strengths), and we noted a bunch of elements that seemed either over or under powered.  As I often say, in the early stages of making a game, I don't worry much about balance, but it is always worth noting where there is a perception of a problem so it can be addressed later.

Over the following couple of days I managed to get testing done with a couple of local friends and tried out a few tweaks.  My first  try was very close to the version I tried on at the London meetup, which confirmed a load of the issues we'd seen before, plus revealed an additional wrinkle: it didn't really matter how many castles were in play (by this time I had experimented with four, five, and six), players felt incentivised to concentrate their efforts on just a couple of them, leaving the others uncontested.

I had an idea. If we had six castles, we could number them one to six, and then use dice in some way to control which castles could be affected by cards at any time.  I roughed out some rules based on this concept: each player has two dice which they roll, and the castles matching the die rolls can be played to by either player, but the player owning each die has a small combat advantage at the matching castle; dice get rerolled after battles.

Version 2a, now with added dice. I should change this blog name to "Later, add some dice."

So this had the effect that I had hoped for and resulted in the game spreading out more.  The downsides were that players (and I include myself in this) often missed which locations were allowed for play, forgot to reroll at the appropriate times, and sometimes felt that the dice made it difficult to plan beyond the next battle.  Notwithstanding these issues, I liked what the dice did for the game, so I'm planning on keeping them in for the time being and seeing if I can knock off the rough edges.

The other recurring issue was my combat system, which was based around a 3x3 table that gave an effect for each combination of the three tactical options chosen by the attacker and defender at a castle.  This was still causing more confusion than interest, despite me telling myself that it was pretty straightforward, could be streamlined with decent graphic design, and could be internalised after a few battles anyway.  Sometimes it takes a while to get something into (or out of) my thick head, but eventually I decided to scrap the table, write some simpler rules onto the tactic cards, and give it another go.  This was another definite improvement.  It lost a bit of the subtlety I was hoping for, but it's just a first pass and the tactic effects can certainly be improved later.

I am also not convinced about the supply cubes I have been using, and have some ideas about replacing them with cards, meaning that I will almost certainly need more cards in the game to compensate, but I'm feeling that about 100 cards plus four dice is probably a reasonable component list.

What now? I'm working on updating my prototype again, and have booked in for a playtesting session with this game at Dragonmeet next weekend: if you're there, I'm playtesting from 4pm, and helping out at the playtest zone for the earlier part of the afternoon.  Hopefully I'll get the game into a reasonable shape in time, and maybe even get a little sanity-check testing beforehand. I have my work cut out for me for the next few days...


What's That on Thy Face?

Before I start, this is a long post with a load of rambling about how I reskinned a small game and got a load of professionally printed cards made, including some technical bits, partly here for my own edification, in case I forget the tricks I used. Apologies in advance.

On with the show...

You may remember earlier in the year I made a small game for a 24 Hour contest, which was about cracking eggs (in the form of cards) on your head and trying to not get covered with rotten eggs.  It was, and still is, a dumb game, but one that usually results in some good laughs when it is played.  For reasons of my own, I had a need for a small game with a Shakespearean theme, that I could give away to friends, so my brain started thinking about a newly retitled "Egge on Thine Face".

While I was pondering this, Cathryn Orchard, an artist friend, posted some pictures on Facebook which looked very close to a style that I thought would work well for the game.  A conversation was had, an art direction document was written, a price was agreed, and in a short while, Cathryn sent me photos of her nearly-done-works-in-progress, showing that she had absolutely nailed the art brief.  Not long afterwards, she sent me the good scans of the work, making me a very happy customer.
The card back, which is even more on the money than I imagined.
The artwork was all provided as scans of pen and ink work, and I wanted to be able to print this onto various backgrounds, so used GIMP to turn the background transparent and then clean the image up a bit from the imperfections resulting from this conversion.

As for the backgrounds, I figured using some textured paper effect would be nice, maybe with a darkish one for the card backs and a lighter one for the front.  Some searching the web led me to someone who had shared a selection of paper textures via DeviantArt under the terms "FREE USE :) JUST DONT CLAIM THESE AS YOURS :)", which is not exactly a clear Creative Commons license, but I figured would be fine as long as I give appropriate credit in the rules -- and here!

My original version of this game had cards with the simplest possible fonts for the limited card text, but going with my Shakespearean reskinning effort, I wanted to use a more "authentic" looking typeface.  Again, some searching the web found JSL Ancient, a free-to-use typeface based on fonts used by C17th English printers, and very much typical of the period a century either way of that time, so perfect for my use.

So, pulling it all together... As you may know, I make extensive use of a piece of software called nanDECK, which is a tool designed to help you create custom game cards.  I already had a script to create the cards for the original version of the game, which just needed small tweaks to account for the new typeface, art and background textures.

My usual method for using nanDECK involves building decks of cards, nine to an A4 sheet, which can then be printed out and cut, with the minor issue (if you want a professional finish) of there being lines on the edges of the cards, depending on how you go about cutting them up.  This is not a problem for my prototypes, and not for most people who make print and play games.

I was intending to get these cards printed at UK-based print-on-demand service, Ivory Graphics, who require printable artwork to be provided as PDF files, with a 3mm bleed. What this means is that the art I provide needs to have an additional 3mm all around the intended card faces so that if the cards are cut slightly off-centre, they will still look okay.  This was easily done by tweaking some numbers in my nanDECK script and setting the PDF pace size I would output to match the size of the art the printer required.

Now we get a bit technical.  As with most (probably all, actually) printers, Ivory they require files to be submitted using the CMYK colourspace as opposed to the RGB used by the free tools I have available to me.  In case you didn't know, these are basically two different ways for a computer image file to define colours, with CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) being optimised for print, while RGB (Red, Green, Blue) based on how screens work. If a printer is expecting one of these and gets the other, the results can be... Actually, I have no idea what the results are, but I hear they are less than ideal.

Here is a point where my lack of training and experience in printing and graphic design really shows. It turns out that in order to convert your files to CMYK you need something called an ICC color profile, and researching that a bit resulted in a lot of confusion for me. This is on my list of things I really need to learn about, but in the shorter term I did manage to find an incantation for GhostScript that I could use on my Linux PC...

-sColorConversionStrategy=CMYK -dProcessColorModel=/DeviceCMYK \
-sOutputFile=EoTF_cards_individual_cmyk.pdf \

If you are not used to Unix or Linux command lines, that command above is probably terrifying to look at, but it follows a style that is very familiar to most other command line tools, and when you get used to that sort of thing, there are all sorts of useful shenanigans you can get up to, without having to click around menus and dialogue windows.

I have used this particular command before, and it gave a result that produced the results I wanted with the printer on a previous project, so it is, for the moment, a voodoo spell that produces an effect I need without any understanding on my part about what is going on under the bonnet.

Being a little paranoid, though, I had to wonder if this actually did anything tangible, so I found another incantation that I could use to provide some evidence...
Either gobbledigook, or interesting stuff, depending on your point of view.
(Probably much like this blog in general.)
So it looks like something changed: in my original file there are RGB images, and in the magicked one there are CMYK images, so we could be getting somewhere.

Right, logging into the Ivory Game Maker website, I was able to upload my PDF file and then twiddle things around until the cards were arranged with the fronts and backs that I wanted.  If I had spent a little time with nanDECK, formatting my file to alternate card fronts and backs, this would have been a lot quicker (well, automatic, I think) but it wasn't too bad a process.  I set the project up to be six copies of the game in one deck (of 54 cards) for convenience, checked the digital proofs, and then submitted an order for the first set, just checking that everything worked, before ordering a bigger batch later.

As an aside, I have so far ordered four of these 54 card packs, and two of them came with the card backs visibly imperfectly centred. This is one of those things that can, unfortunately, happen, and is the reason for that 3mm bleed allowance.  Something I learned from this, however, is that the border on the card back art made this imperfection a lot more obvious.  I really like the framing of that border, and I think it looks great on the "good" cards, but it is a thing to bear in mind if I ever do another project like this.

Next I needed a rulebook, preferably a small one. I rewrote my original The Yolk's on You rules, simplifying a bit, and cutting out a lot of cruft, then fed all that into the DTP package, Scribus, which I have used a couple of times before, but don't have a lot of experience with. After a bit of poking around, I managed to get the rules formatted so that I could trim the page to an appropriate size, then fold it a couple of times to be a little larger than the game cards, so I could fit the whole thing into a gripseal baggie.

I printed a load of these onto some paper that came pre-printed with an aged texture, the sort of paper you buy to print invitations to a pirate themed party, or something.  Unfortunately the colour of this paper doesn't quite match that of the texture I used for the card backs, which would have been ideal, but doing it this way is saving me a lot of printer toner.

And so, all the above, combined with a bunch of heavy duty 2.5" by 3.5" gripseal bags (350 micron plastic, which was so worth the slightly increased outlay), meant that I could assemble a pile of the games in a state ready to be given away.

Some cards, some more cards, and a baggie containing cards and rules. Yay!

Overall, I'm very pleased with this whole project and how it turned out. The game itself is very basic, and the presentation is rudimentary, but it is what I wanted it to be.  I will probably make a few more sets of it, but when the limited supply of paper for the rulesheets is gone, I reckon that'll be it.  But the print and play materials are available on the game's page on Board Game Geek, so if anyone fancies doing some printing and cutting, go for it!


The Castles of Comparatively Sane King Stephen

Another month, another new game... This one has been stewing in my brain for a little while now as I have been reading a book about the civil war in England (and Normandy, but the narrative in the book focuses on England) between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in the mid 12th century.  This is the period often known as The Anarchy.

There were a lot of twists and turns in the war before it finally reached a settlement which allowed Stephen to remain as king for the rest of his life (only about a year after the end of the war, as it happened), but to be succeeded by Matilda's son, who became Henry II.  Lots of material for a game in there, but the bit that caught my imagination was the period of comparative stalemate through a big chunk of the 1140's, which the author, Jim Bradbury, describes as the Castle War -- I have no idea if this is a widely used term. During this period, there were no major battles, but both sides built, besieged, and captured many castles in a shifting game of chess that Stephen seems to have done better at but, while Matilda ended up withdrawing to Normandy, it was not enough to stop resistance from her faction, or prevent the later campaigns of her son, Henry.  Much of this phase of the war also took place close to where I live (seemingly most of it within an hour's drive), making it of some local interest too.

I have finally reached the stage where I have a playable prototype, albeit one missing a few elements that I am hoping to add later, and also having some rules that are just a bit vague and woolly.  Still, my daughter, Miss B, played the game with me and helped decide a few rules that I wasn't sure about.  It looks like we do actually have the basics of a workable game, though the balance is certainly off, dynamics are ropy, and it could all collapse very easily.  This is fine, and where I wanted to be: it felt like we were actually playing a game.
Hand drawn cards for the win!
I actually had a load of fun scribbling bad pictures of motte and bailey castles.

The game as it stands is a pretty simple card game.  There are a row of cards depicting castles in the centre of the table, and the objective is to either control all of the castles, or to have the majority when the deck of cards runs out.  You play cards, which can be troops, leaders, or tactics cards, face-down on your side of the castles, and when you use a turn to draw fresh cards, you must nominate a castle to "resolve".  When you resolve a castle, all cards played by it are revealed, and a conflict either takes place or it doesn't, as a result of which the castle may change ownership, and cards may be discarded or returned to their player's hand.

This seems to work reasonably well at the moment, at least when both players are playing in the spirit of the game and not trying anything crazy.

So, with the proof of concept holding so far, what now?  The main elements I want to add in, taken from warfare of the period, are to consider "counter castles" (fortifications built to limit the operations of a more established castle, and to act as a base for siege), the sometimes shifting allegiances of the barons involved in the conflict, and prisoners and hostages taken from the opposition.  With all of these I need to be careful to not add too much complexity, as I want to keep the game fairly light and fast flowing, but if they can add to the theme and the strategic decisions available, I'll give it a try.

I also need to consider the overall form of the game. At the moment, the components are a small deck of cards and a few tokens to indicate the supplies held by a castle.  One possible issue is that there being a single deck of cards might lead to games where a poor distribution of cards might result in a massively unbalanced game, or one that is just boring.  It might be worth using separate decks for different types of cards, so players can access the types of cards they need, or perhaps each player could have their own deck.  All things to think about as I move forward...


Three Powers Go to Town

I've been a bit low on energy lately, particularly on the game design front, but one big positive has come with the start of a design collaboration with Phil Tootill, a friend and playtesting buddy who used to work for the same organisation as me (which was convenient for playtesting at lunchtimes), and contributed one of the official game variants to The Lady and the Tiger.  We thrashed some ideas out over an online hangout, I threw together an initial prototype and did some early testing, then Phil took over, making some changes and getting playtest feedback on them before handing back over to me.

The core idea of the game is that players are shadowy figures, guiding and manipulating the actions of three powerful factions which are vying for control of the land.  The outcomes for the factions themselves don't really matter: it's all about the personal objectives of the players, who might shift their attention and favours through the game.  We want the game to be reasonably quick to teach and not too long to play, so maybe an hour or less.

We've been through a few iterations of this so far, trying a few different approaches, including using cards with varying degrees of multi-use-ness, having money tokens or not, using a set round structure or not, and so on.  All this has circled round an idea that still looks worthwhile to us, but just hasn't really convinced either of us of the direction to take so far.

My latest attempt stole the "hand building" approach of such games as Concordia and Century: ChooseYourVersion.  If you don't know these games, basically when it is your turn you play a card and do what it says, and every few turns you pick up all the cards you have played so far, thus replenishing your options; plus you gain new cards as you go to give yourself more variety.

This weekend was an opportunity to go to London for a playtesting meetup, so I took the uninspiringly-titled "Three Powers" along to see what feedback I could get.

As often happens, I forgot to take a photo, so here is an approximate reenactment of the game.

So, let's just say that the game in its current form was not an unalloyed success. There was a general approval for the concept of the game and some of its elements, but plenty just sat badly.

As is often the case in my early designs, the pacing was poor, and some things took so long to achieve that nobody bothered with them. We also saw that pretty much everyone effectively focused on a single faction, meaning that the faction with two players contributing to its moves became more powerful on the board. This isn't necessarily bad in itself, but it meant that the "solo" players felt that they were struggling, and the scoring was such that it reinforced this perception.

Apart from that, chunks of the game were either overpowered or felt irrelevant. This may be an issue with balance, or it may indicate that some elements are simply unnecessary.

Interestingly, one of the playtesters spotted an action that was massively exploitable and asked if he should go ahead and exploit it, or pretend that it wasn't a big deal and play more "gently". This is awesome, and great playtesting. Under the circumstances, I wanted to just see the game in broad terms and simply noting the issues with this action and then continuing as if they weren't there was the most useful thing, but if we were later in the development process I might have wanted to see how much damage could be done. Of course, everyone around the table for this test was a game designer, and so sensitive to the needs of the process, but I was so pleased to have been asked.  I will try to learn from this and do similar when I am testing other people's games.

Where does this leave this game?  I am thinking that I want to focus even more on the cards, and actually lose the politics and influence tracking boards, but probably reintroduce the score track that we retired a little while back.  I want players to probably actually play fewer cards during the game, but have weightier decisions and bigger effects on the turns that they do play. As a tester commented, the game just doesn't seem dynamic enough right now.  However, I saw enough positivity here that I definitely feel it is worth pushing forward, albeit with some significant changes.

I have some ideas for now and will see if I can get things moving in the coming days so that I have something interesting to show Phil later.  Trying something out which turns out to be a blind alley isn't a problem as we can always roll back to previous versions.

Of course, being at a playtesting meetup is not all about my games.  I was pleased to have a go at a game that I had played a couple of earlier iterations of, and has now been streamlined from a 60+ minute middleweight Eurogame with many moving parts (and which I did like, as it happens) to a slick, 30 minute set collection game that I would totally buy and could probably play with people who were not hardcore hobby gamers. The other couple of games I played were much earlier on the development path: one was a cooperative "dungeon crawl" game that was a bit creaky but had some definite charm and potential, while the other was an investment game based around an interesting idea that needs a lot of work but could become viable.

Thanks to everyone who was there on Sunday for making the day so fun and productive. And good luck to all those heading off to pitch their designs at Essen this week...


Making Tracks in London

Having missed a month due to reasons of having a family and a life with them, I got back to the London Sunday playtest meetup this weekend, and this time took along my game, Corlea, inspired by an iron age wooden road through a section of bog in County Longford in Ireland. I first did a little race game based on this site a couple of years ago, and then last year added this Euro-style game to my pile of works in progress, and came back to play with it some more this year. (Click on the "Corlea" label below to find the various posts.)

Anyway, this was the first time I had playtested the game with anyone other than one of my local friends, so I was hoping to learn some new things about the game. I knew already that the game end was woolly, balance was poor, and pacing was uncertain, but what else...?

About mid-game, with most of the worker cubes on the board,
and some very fine elbow modeling from the testers.
We had a three-player game, taking only about half an hour, which was something of a surprise: all the tests I had run of this over the last few months have been solo, so I really had no idea of how long it would take with real players.  This is a fine example of how, while solo testing is a really useful approach for getting rough assessments of progress, you really do need other people to know what is what.

Overall I think the game was less dull than I had feared, but was very much underwhelming -- though, given its early stage of development, I'm not going to beat myself up over that.  Some of the key observations we had were:

  • The trackway got completed rather quickly, with chieftains (player pieces) still only half way along.
  • Once a load of worker cubes had been placed, competition for the various action/scoring spots pretty much stopped.
  • The dice for scoring and action difficulty were reasonably popular, but seemed too chaotic in the way they are being used.
  • The various types of card are probably the key to the game, but at the moment they don't quite get there, and the incentive to acquire them might not be enough as yet.
  • There was a feeling that the game is entirely tactical, and you can't really make any strategic plans.
There were a load more comments, which I have noted in my logbook, but I think these are the main ones I want to address in the short term.  My plan for the next iteration is to remove cubes from action spaces every time an action is completed, and to try a different way of handling the scoring dice to make them more predictable.  I also need to work out a smarter end to the game.  From then on, we'll see...

This was, of course, an afternoon that was not all about my game, and I was able to test and give feedback on several other prototypes.  This time we had a clever auction game, a sneaky negotiation and voting game, a tense cooperative alien hunt, and a frantic real-time dice game, and missed some other great stuff at other tables.  Looking forward to next month already...