2018-09-18

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...

2018-09-15

Participating in War

Today I attended the Colours wargame show in the next town southish from where I live. This is my second time, and while I am not what anyone would describe as a wargamer (particularly when the focus in this context is on miniatures games), I have enjoyed both of my trips there, partly from browsing the trade hall and looking at the various games being run, and partly from joining in a couple of the participation games that take up most of the top floor of the show.

I only have very limited experience with these participation games, but I suspect there is something I can learn from them. They contrast quite a lot with demo games at a boardgame event, which would generally be done by, or on behalf of, a publisher or designer, where the aim is, when it gets right down to it, to sell you something.  What I have seen of participation games at wargame shows, while some are put on by publishers, most of them are actually run by wargame clubs and they are presented both as a service and as a way for the members of a club to show off what they can do -- and have fun doing it.
This picture brought to you by BlurryVision™
If it was clearer you would see a bunch of Jeeps driving around blowing stuff up.
Across the show there were games varying from very quick skirmishes up to epic battles with many hundreds (possibly even thousands in a couple of cases) of miniatures arrayed across a vast battlefield.  They are invariably presented beautifully, with great attention paid to the layout and scenery.  Some are designed to be quick to teach and playable in a manageable amount of time by casual players, and these are the only ones I actually have experience of, but I understand some of the bigger games just run through the day and allow players to turn up and take over a unit command for part of the time.

The games I have played (those more casual ones) seem to have been either simplified versions of published rulesets, or custom built.  These latter are probably closely based on something else, and even if they are not consciously, the general pattern of roll-to-hit, possibly followed by roll-to-defend, and/or roll-for-damage, is a familiar one that turns up in so many games that it doesn't require a big investment of time to set up.

Something I wish I'd asked was whether clubs take the same game around to multiple shows, or build something afresh each time.  I suspect there is something of a mixture in this.

What I really like about these games is that they were constructed with a particular audience in mind. The games I have played were targeted as people like me, who aren't deep into the wargaming world, and don't want to spend ages learning intricate rules. They provide an excellent window for me to see some of what there is out there.  I like also that they tend to focus clearly on one thing and, while they may have some wobbles about them, they generally do that one thing well.  This year I played one game where we cooperated to blow stuff up against an enemy controlled by a member of the club running the game, and another where we were tank commanders trying to be the one to kill an enemy tank, again controlled by an expert. Last year one game involved battling for treasure at the bottom of the sea -- with Lego! All of these felt clear, simple, and enjoyable.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with all this, or what it is I can learn here, but maybe it is just a general reminder that visuals matter, focus matters, context matters, and knowing your intended audience matters.

If anyone reading this has any experience playing or running a participation game at a wargame show, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. :)

2018-09-09

The Proof of the Reading

As you may be aware I have, over the last few years, occasionally helped out with proof reading and editing game rulebooks on a volunteer basis, and even got myself a few printed credits for the work. This is something I quite enjoy doing, and I feel is an important thing to do to try to help raise standards within the hobby. I don't feel I'm particularly good at it though.

So, I have found out about the Society for Editors and Proofreaders thanks to Rachael Mortimer (give her a shout for experienced, professional proofreading of game rulebooks), and after reading around their website and discussing with Rachael, I decided to join.

The membership pack, it has arrived!
Membership benefits include discounts from their suite of training courses, so I figured that if I wanted to do some of their courses, the membership worked out as effectively being free.  Why not give it a punt?

As of this evening, I have joined the organisation and signed up for the entry-level proofreading course as a taster.  I will be working through that over the next few weeks and then we'll see how things go. If all goes well, this may be a new string to my bow.

2018-09-02

Craghold: Kinda Failed, Kinda Succeeded

If you've been reading this blog over the last few months, you're probably aware that I have been working, on and off, on a game for the Board Game Geek Print and Play Wargame contest, and made some decent progress, ending up with a game that is playable, but a little wobbly in some areas and has some serious balance issues.  I feel it's OK for my first attempt at a wargame, even though it needs a load more work to be considered "done".

Well, I kinda lost track of dates and deadlines, and a couple of days ago I checked the contest details and, to my horror, I found I was a day away from the submission deadline rather than having several weeks as I thought.  I don't know why I got mixed up about this, but I clearly fell foul of the cardinal sin of not putting important dates and deadlines into my calendar.

The end state of a recent playtest where the defenders got a far-too-comfortable victory.
So this left me with a decision to make: do I throw in the towel and maybe submit a more thoroughly developed game next year, or do I just go for it and submit what I have?

I decided to make a few corrections to the rulebook that I had discovered recently, and then go for it.  This being effectively an incomplete game, I am pretty much throwing away any realistic chance of winning in any of the contest categories, unless it turns out that I am the only entry in one of them! I am OK with this though. As with the regular 24 hour contests, I'm taking the main benefit as being an incentive to make something that I probably wouldn't have done otherwise, and learn something from the process. 

If you fancy checking out the entries for the contest (and maybe voting when the voting page comes up in November), here's the contest thread.

2018-08-14

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.

2018-08-06

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...

2018-07-30

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.