Recent Weeks

I definitely seem to have fallen off the blogging bicycle recently, but I have been chugging along with game design work over the last few weeks, even if I've not been charging forwards. So, just to get things going again, here are some of the things I got up to...

I had a really good playtesting and development session with Dave and Robin, other game designers who I meet up with most months. We've missed a couple of months for assorted reasons, but this got us back into the swing of things again and I was able to run tests of a couple of my projects as well as some of theirs.
Familiar cards, unfamiliar table, but with ships from Seafall (I think!)
Another really useful session was a trip to meet with Lewis from Braincrack Games to work on Scurvy Crew, face-to-face. This was the first time we had actually been able to play the game together, and it resulted in some great ideas bouncing around and some interesting plans made. I can't say too much right now as a lot is up in the air, but the plan is to provide the game with a campaign mode where you get to play a series of games, building your crew and improving your ship as well as meeting new challenges as you go along.

The monthly playtesting session in London happened last week and once again I took Elvic, Tom Coldron's game, where we had a couple of plays with a small tweak (a card being face-up instead of face-down, thus giving more information to players) between plays.  This game is so fast that playtest groups are often happy to do this, which makes iteration quicker than I am used to for other games. A lesson here, perhaps?

Other than that, I have been rummaging through my archives, and pulled an old project from 2016 back onto the table to see what I can do with it.  I've found a little inspiration here, so rather than discussing that right now, I'll post something more detailed about it shortly...


Something old, something new, something borrowed

This has been a bit of a tricky post to write. Trying to get the balance right in a couple of ways. I'm not sure I've succeeded. You judge.

So a couple of weeks or so ago I received a proposal from a friend and fellow game designer, Tom Coldron, who had a game that he had got working but wanted someone else to spend some time looking at it, and was wondering if I would be interested in this, and in exchange he would do the same for one of my games.  This sounded like a great idea to me, so I sent Tom the files for Boogie Knights (which works, but isn't really satisfactory), and he sent me a game called Elvic.

Elvic is a small game designed to fit in a mint tin, and is what I would describe as an area control game with action selection.  Slightly less jargony: each round players have access to a card which gives them a couple of options, and they select the way they use that card to put tokens onto cards representing regions in the kingdom, then you score points at the end of the game according to whether or not they have the most tokens in each region.

Mid-game for our first play at the Jugged Hare.
I got to try the game out with one of my local groups, and found that we liked the game in general but were frustrated by one particular aspect, and we experimented with tweaks to this in a second play. These changes didn't really do what I wanted it to, but at least gave some ideas for me to work with, largely due to some great suggestions from the playtesters.

This is the bit I've been having trouble with as I don't want to put down Tom's work at all (he's made -- aside from that issue -- a cracking game that I enjoyed playing and that I wouldn't have made myself) or say that I have solved his problem, or even that the issue we saw was one that existed for any other group.  I've been finding it really interesting to explore someone else's design and tweak it to see if it suits me (and my playtesters) a little more.

Anyway, a few days later, and with a slightly modified game, it was a day for a trip to London for playtesting, so for the first time I went along bearing somebody else's game. We had a four-player game that took the lower end of what I was expecting the play time to be, and my colleagues kindly agreed to have another play straight away. 

There was actually relatively little feedback articulated at the end, just a few relatively minor points, and play involved some furrowed brows and growling at a number of the decisions.  Normally it's good to have a decent discussion about the game, but I'd picked up plenty of information through play, and we wanted to move on to allow another designer to test their game after I had been hogging table time.  In both plays of Elvic, over the last couple of rounds there was a certain amount of counting up potential scores in order to optimise moves, which didn't take long, and suited the headspace the players were in, but might be a negative for some players. I think this is largely just a feature of this style of game, trying to optimise your endgame to eke out those last few victory points.

Overall this was a really encouraging session and suggested that the game might be moving in the right direction (it was pretty close beforehand) but I want to see a few more playtests, with assorted player counts (I've not yet tried it with two players) and levels of gaming experience (remember that this day's testers were all game designers) before I hand it back to Tom to see what he makes of my suggested changes. Thanks for the opportunity, Tom!

I'm also really looking forward to see what he thinks of for Boogie Knights, as and when.


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...


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.


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.



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.


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.