2019-08-24

Jugged Teeth

The very first 24 Hour Contest design I made was a game called Tooth Fairies, back in early 2015. It is a game where players are tooth fairies, exchanging coins for children's teeth, which are collected into sets to be presented to the fairy king and queen, who give out rewards to their loyal subjects. Mechanically you are picking up cards from a row of available teeth (though some are rotten, and some are just useless lumps of chewed gum) and when you have a set that matches one of the "missions" from the king or queen, you collect a reward from them. The game is aimed at being a quick, family friendly game.

Anyway, I was recently looking through my old projects and was inspired to get this one out and take a look at it.  The game seemed at least OK, so I gave it a once-over to pad out some elements and smooth some others, built a fresh prototype, and took it along to this month's London weekend playtest meetup.



The game flowed OK overall, but the way the row of available tooth cards functioned meant that it needed constant sliding of cards, a maintenance task that went smoothly enough as one player was automatically handling it most of the time, but one that made for a grinding feeling that should really be got rid of.  The set up I used meant that the game would have been far too long if we hadn't removed half of the mission cards, and the players complained about the balance of the demands of the missions and the rewards for them.

As regular readers may know, I tend to not worry about game balance until I have a game that flows pretty well, so I'm not worried about these comments at the moment, other than that if players are fixating on a balance issue it means that there probably isn't enough in the game to make up for these perceived problems.

Overall, the structure of the game was reminiscent of another, and sufficiently so that my players couldn't help but saying that the game felt like a sub-standard Century: Spice Road. I can see where they are coming from on that.  I think that, while the game is very much not a lightweight engine builder like Century, the comparison is inevitable as things stand, so I need to address that. 

Structurally, I think the problem is that my row of tooth cards invites the unfavourable comparison and causes the constant, small upkeep tasks, so I need to find some way for players to collect teeth, which must also, for thematic reasons, involve paying coins for those teeth.  I'll be sleeping on this some more, but I think that there will probably be some system along the lines of periodically flopping a selection of tooth cards and coming up with a system for players to claim them.  Work to do...

2019-08-21

More than a score at DevCon 4

On Saturday I attended the fourth mini-conference known  as BG Dev Con, hosted in Enfield (those of us not from London regard it as part of London, about which I gather we are incorrect!) by Bez Shahriari and Andy Yangou. I missed last year's event, but attended the first two and had a great time at both.  The key to this event is that, while it is a gathering comprising mostly game designers (from unpublished rookies to grizzled veterans with many published titles), with a few other folk with compatible interests, there is no playtesting allowed. The day is focused on talking and sharing experience.


About 2/3 of the attendees. Thanks to Dave Wetherall (of the Guild of Good Games) for the pic.
For me, the heart of the event is that everyone is encouraged to get up and speak, if only to introduce themselves for two minutes, and most of the rest of the day is shortish talks (many only around 10 minutes) on a huge variety of subjects, not all of which are obvious at first. This year we had a couple of different perspectives on art, a talk about using games in language teaching, another on the mechanics of parcel delivery services, some thoughts on the design of freeform LARPs, and a comparison of game design with the scientific method.

There were planned sessions of speed designing/concepting and some parallel discussions, but these didn't occur as the group was relatively small (I made it 24 of us) and everyone wanted to stick together rather than split the party. This resulted in some of the planned longer talks being sped up so that they could be fitted in, meaning that we lost a little detail, but the day kept up its high tempo.

Of course, this frantic pace gets very tiring, but there were several breaks of about 15 minutes (as well as the hour-ish for lunch) giving everyone a chance to grab refreshments, take their ease, and chat about the matters discussed so far.  This seemed to work very well.

So, overall an exhausting day with a lot to think about and a great opportunity to get to know a group of reasonably-like-minded people a load better -- and make some new friends along the way.  There is another run of the meet planned for mid-August next year (dates to be confirmed), but I'll be along again if I am able.  Thanks to everyone involved for a great day.

2019-08-07

Developing Scurvy

Having signed Scurvy Crew to be published is far from being the end of the story from my point of view.  Different publishers work in different ways when it comes to developing games for publication, and the deal I have here is that I work with the Brain Crack Games to tweak the game into a form they are happier with before they finally hit the Big Red Button to make the game (with the help of a Kickstarter project).  I say "happier" because they were clearly keen enough on the game to sign it, but there are improvements that can turn the game into the actual product they want to ship. This is normal.

I'm not going to go into great detail about what we are doing yet, as a lot is in flux and it's not appropriate for me to be shouting about things that as yet may or may not be in the game, but we have been discussing a few tweaks and I have been trying out some of them with my playtest groups.
The prototype is still looking pretty scruffy, but there are plans forming to make something really nice.
The main intent is to add some more variability into the game, with more variety of merchant ships that can be captured as prizes as well as other things that can be found while hunting for booty, and a new mechanism allowing pirates to gain upgrades to give them additional capabilities.  It is interesting that I spent most of the six months leading up to successfully pitching the game pulling mechanics out and generally simplifying, but now we are adding a little complexity back in. Only a little, mind you, and all the new stuff is modular, so can actually be ignored safely for a lighter game.

This is the first time I have been through a process like this, with me doing development under the guidance of a third party, and I'm enjoying it so far, even though it is pulling my attention away from some other projects I would like to concentrate on.  Still, there is an end to the process, probably in a few more months or so, after which it will be mostly out of my hands and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the box ends up.

A small aside to finish off with: last week I received my Kickstarter copy of Ragusa, the new game by Fabio Lopiano (designer of the excellent Calimala), from Brain Crack Games. They've done a cracking job of making a great game (if you like mid-weight Euro games, watch out for more games from Fabio in the next few years -- he's very good at them) into a beautiful product, so I'm even happier working with them for one of my games.

2019-07-16

Re-Invaded

I've done very little work over the last year on Invaded, my game about being on the receiving end of a colonial invasion, but that doesn't mean that I have stopped thinking about it.  By May/June last year I think I was hitting a bit of a wall with it  -- for the previous year or so it had been a major focus of effort for me, and maybe I was burning out with it a bit.  Having a project staying on the shelf for a while is not a bad thing, though, as sometimes it means I can detach myself from the details and come back with a fresh perspective.  That worked with Scurvy Crew, and I feel it is about time to take another look at Invaded.

This is another "not actually done anything" post, like my recent one about puffins wearing hats.  I feel I need to make sure I don't fall into the trap of constantly writing about things I am planning to do rather than actually doing anything but, conversely, writing things down and sharing them can sometimes help keep me moving forward. I hope you will bear with me.

In case you aren't familiar with Invaded, the outline is that you are a tribe in a relatively peaceful land that has just been invaded by a powerful (non-player) colonial force that wants your land and your resources. It's a competitive game where you win by surviving the invasion the "best", though there are opportunities to change the way you score along the way, and as a result, strategies could involve trying to run and hide, collaborating, or fighting back. The actions of the colonial power are decided by the players by playing colonial activity cards: when it is your turn you take one action for your tribe, and one on behalf of the colonial power, and those actions generally tend to make the invaders expand their base, build forts, and attack the native tribes.
This is how Invaded looked in its very first playable version.
It has come a long way since then.
Anyhoo...  With some distance from my last substantive change, it is clear that there are several structural issues with the game that I had been trying to avoid thinking about too hard, including...
  • The game has a lengthy player reference sheet that is largely reminding players of the actions available to them, and players usually initially spend a lot of time referring to this. Actually there are two sheets: the second is an icon reference.  Complex (or, at least, lengthy) reference materials may be an indicator of problems in the understandability of a game that is, or should be, relatively straightforward to play.
  • The central "aggression" tracking board is a bit of a kludge, and several aspects of the game require cross-referencing with this board to see how those other elements behave. For instance, the colonial activity cards have different options based on the aggression level of the invaders, and it is easy to make mistakes with this.
  • The fact that players make a move using a card and a move from a menu of options using pieces on the board feels like there are different mechanisms for different parts of what they do on their turn. Which there are. The different mechanisms, while arguably justified, do add a cognitive load on the players and leads to questions.
I have been pondering this all and am now starting to think that I may be ready to make some serious changes. I have a few notes, but basically I need to find some time to knuckle down and retool the entire game with the biggest change in components for a very long time.  It's worth a try and if it doesn't work out, I will be able to roll back, so it's just time (and a load of toner and some cardstock) at risk here.  A quick outline of what I am planning to do:

  • Instead of the colonial activity deck I will try having a deck of cards with combined tribal and colonial actions. As with the recent iterations, you will have a hand of cards and choose what order to play them in, and will be able to decide whether to play the tribal or colonial action first, but you must do both if you are able. Playing tribal actions from cards will remove the need for the "menu" player aid.
  • You will start with an initial hand of "low intensity" activity cards, which you keep from round to round, but as the game progresses you will gain additional cards which allow more powerful actions, but which also make the colonial power more aggressive, and you will be able to get rid of your starter cards over time.
  • This may not be needed, but I will probably replace the aggression board with a small event deck, which gradually ramps up the game's intensity.  The developing hands of action cards will be another way to build intensity without needing the tracker board.
  • The strategy/upgrade cards may no longer be needed, but I'll probably leave them for now, though making adjustments for the other changes taking places.
  • Not really necessary, but I feel an urge to retool the location cards, partly to rejig the resource distribution, though I may turn them into actual hexagonal tiles to make everything look a little nicer as we move forward.
As a bonus little aside, there's also the theme to consider. This is an odd one actually: the game is very much linked to its theme (that of being at the receiving end of a colonial invasion, which is a push back against a common trope in board games), but I have shied away from actually linking the game to a specific location or period of history.  I was talking about Invaded with a publisher recently (one who I wouldn't expect to publish it, but who expressed general interest) and they said that I should stop being so squeamish and give the game a defined setting, which should give it some more character and make it more initially appealing, even if that setting gets changed for publication.

I'm thinking about this and am considering setting up an alternate world of some sort, so as not to commit to something historical, but at least to tie everything to something a little more coherent and less vague.  We'll see.

2019-07-12

Puffins In Hats

As I have been drawing a picture every day this year, some themes have developed, more or less without planning, and one of those is puffins. I think I have drawn more puffins than anything else, and I have semi-joked on a few occasions that I would make a game about puffins at some point in the near future. The problem was that I had no coherent idea to base such a game on. Would the game be based on actual puffin behaviour? Would it have an ecological message? (After all, puffins, via their food supplies, are vulnerable to climate change as has been seen by the recent population crash in Pacific Tufted Puffins.) Or would I go for something lighter and cuter?

Then one day, completely on a whim I drew a few sketches of slightly cartoony puffins wearing assorted hats.
Day 183: Puffins in Hats.

I'm not sure why I did that, but I had a load of enthusiastic feedback about it through social media and then the phrases "puffins in hats" and "nuffin' but cats" came to mind. Any pretence of a worthy, serious (ish) game went out of the window and I couldn't think of anything but that. 

Given that pair of phrases, my brain went to a game where you have cards, most of which have puffins on them, in an assortment of hats, and you are trying to collect either a variety of different hats, or all the same type of hat.  Some of the cards have cats on, though, and the cats chase away puffins, "poison" your hand, or otherwise cause you problems, so you are trying to avoid getting them. BUT, if you end up with "nuffin' but cats", you win the game (or at least the hand), a bit like "shooting the moon" in other games like, for example, Hearts.

I'm musing over ways to make this happen at the moment, and there are a load of options on how to do it: drafting cards in some way, auctioning, trick taking, etc.  My current favourite is a variation on trick taking, where everyone starts with a mixed hand of cards, and plays a card in turn (not quite sure on the way this is controlled right now), and whoever "wins" the trick (i.e. everyone plays a card and the "top" card is determined by some rule -- probably based on the cards having numerical values) takes all the cards into their hand. If they have a "legal hand" (a bit like going out in Gin Rummy), they declare it and win the hand, otherwise they start a fresh trick. If you win a trick and there is a cat in it, then you lose one or more cards, but if there is more than one cat in the trick, then it is handled in a different way which I am not sure about; maybe the highest value cat player wins in that case and something special happens.

I don't think this would be stable as it stands, and the changing hand sizes and the lack of cards actually leaving play (as usually happens in a trick-taking game) could be a problem, so I need to work on that.

Anyway, this is all just ideas at the moment, while I should be thinking about other things, but I thought I would write down and share my current state as it might encourage me to take the game forwards at some time.  I should actually be able to play a very basic test of the game using a regular deck of playing cards, to at least work out the general flow of play, though I think I probably want more than four suits (or hats) for this game. 

2019-07-09

Mid-Year Musings

We're now just past half way through 2019, which seems a good time to do a little reflection to see how things are going this year.

Well, the big, rainbow-striped elephant on a bouncy castle in the middle of the room is, of course, the fact that I have a game newly signed for publication and another being evaluated by a different publisher, so by rookie game designer standards, that makes this year a rollocking success right away.  I'm happy to take that all as a win regardless of anything else.

Other than that, though, how are things going?

My basic plans were to "enter contests, pitch more games, work with other people more, playtest more", and I have had mixed success with that. I've only entered one contest (a 24 hour contest), and have talked about collaboration with a couple of other designers but we've not really got anything off the ground yet. I have done pretty well with playtesting with other designers (trips to London as well as more local sessions), but been less successful at organising playtesting sessions with "normal" gamers.  The pitching has gone well though: I have only done limited pitching so far, but I have had the good fortune to be aiming the right games at the right publishers so far, with one game signed and one still being evaluated.  On that last point, if you are interested, I haven't chased it up as it has only been a little over a month and, from talking to other designers, it seems that two to three months seems a sensible timescale for follow-ups.

A recent playtest of Scurvy Crew, coming along nicely.

I'm still reading assorted history books, albeit slowly, mostly based on the early middle ages (Saxon to Angevin), and the plan was to take some ideas and turn them into games, and I've not got any of that done yet, but a few stories are making me think and I may find a game in them sometime. For instance, there is Henry the Young King, basically Henry 2.5, who was crowned co-king but pre-deceased his father so was never king in his own right, and spent much of his (brief) adult life touring Europe with a spectacular entourage, competing in tournaments.  Or the fascinating Nicola de la Haye, who held several normally male positions, including Sheriff of Lincolnshire through the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. I'll still intend to make something built on these or similar stories.

Sharing playable games online was another aim, and the only non-contest game I have shared was a couple of iterations of Scurvy Crew, which is one that has been shared in various forms over the years, but as it had been languishing for a long time, I'll count that one.  Still more to do though.

Aside from game-related objectives, I have continued in my exercise to draw (and share online) something every day.  As I write this, it is day 190, and I have a folder on my laptop with 190 scanned drawings in it, which feels like quite an achievement.  Many of the pictures have been of puffins, and I have joked a few times that I will make a game about puffins using some of these pictures; ideas are starting to come, so this may actually end up happening.

Aside from puffins I've been doing assorted exercises like,
for example, these longsword guard positions.

Finally I was planning to keep working on developing my proofreading and editing skills. I have proofread a handful of rulebooks so far this year, so keeping it ticking over, but I have not been pushing it too hard.  I do need to take advantage of my "Society for Editors and Proofreaders" membership and take another training course or two, though.

So overall, while I haven't made too much progress in my original plans, I am progressing overall. Just reviewing here is quite useful to remind myself of how I could keep myself moving forwards.

2019-06-17

Scurvy Contracts

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may know that my pirate game, Scurvy Crew, has been in the works for a long time.  OK, so it has spent a lot of the time on the shelf, but occasionally brought out for another round or two of development.  I eventually got the game to a state where I felt I could show it to publishers, and I approached a couple of publishers I thought might be most interested in the game, had a meeting with one of them at UK Games Expo, and they took a prototype from me.

Over the following couple of weeks I had assorted messages from the publisher, who played the game at least a couple of times (maybe more, I don't know) and started enthusiastically coming up with ideas to turn my game into their product.  And as a result of this and some to-and-fro discussion, I am pleased to announce that, as of today, Scurvy Crew is under contract to be published by Braincrack Games.
This is what the top of a contract sometimes looks like.
There's a lot of personal and business confidential stuff in there, so this is all you get to see!

If you don't know them, Braincrack is a small UK-based publisher with a steadily growing range of games.  Their first title, Downsize, is a nice, lightweight cardgame that we have played and enjoyed at work a bunch of times.  More recently, I was really impressed with their smallish-box tile game, Dead and Breakfast.  And I am really looking forward to getting hold of the currently-on-a-ship Ragusa, by the designer of the excellent Calimala, Fabio Lopiano.  Add to that the fact that they have a game on the way by the fantastic David Turczi, and this is a stable of games that I am absolutely delighted to be a part of.  I must admit that I am more than a bit nervous.

Anyway, that is where we are at right now.  There will now be a period of development where I work with the Braincrack team to turn the game that I am proud of into the final product that they want to publish.  Ideas are bouncing around at the moment, but I can't really reveal anything yet other than to say that there may be a change to the game's title, and that it is planned for a Kickstarter project some time next year. 

Other than that, I will be blogging and tweeting about this from time to time, but as we are now working on a product, and there is someone else's business involved, I can't really be completely open about everything that is going on all the time.  I'm looking forward to the process though.