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...


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. :)


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.


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.