The Road Ahead

OK, so I have these standing objectives that pretty much roll over from last year: enter contests, pitch more games, work with other people more, playtest more.  This is all good stuff, and I'll keep working on that, but I should probably think of something new to focus on in 2019.

One thing that comes to mind is that Castle War has whetted my appetite for making historically-based games, however loose that basis is, and I have recently been enjoying reading history books, so I will plan to make more games based on historical events that I read about.  I have decided to keep a notebook with me when I am reading in case of sudden inspiration (this really is something I should/could have been doing beforehand) and I am sure that will result in a few notes being made.  Making this into a slightly more measurable objective, I'll plan to make at least three of these ideas into playable prototypes through the year.  The number three always seems a nice one for this sort of thing.
This has nothing to do with game design, but it turns out I enjoy drawing puffins.

Something I've not been so great on over the last year or two is actually making prototypes available in a print and play format -- apart from the ones I make for contests, that is.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but if I did so, it would mean that I always have games in a state where I can send them to interested parties.  I'll do better at this in 2019.  Shall we say three games that are not contest entries will be shared online (probably via a "work in progress" thread on Board Game Geek) through the year?

In the non-gaming part of my life I have a project on the go that I am refusing to admit is a new year's resolution: I have bought myself a sketch book and have been drawing something in it each day, with the intent to keep going for as long as time, patience, and willpower allows, and just drawing whatever I fancy on each occasion. So far, so good (at the time of writing, I'm on twelve in a row), and if you want to see my very amateurish art exploits, I'm sharing each picture on Twitter, on the principle that telling people you are doing something makes it more likely that you will do that thing.

I am also planning to continue getting training and practice in proofreading and editing skills.  I see this as "game design adjacent", a skillset that is useful to game publishers and may allow me to help people out more.  Plus I enjoy it and developing new skills is always worthwhile in itself.

But first up, Castle War and Scurvy Crew both need a little attention, so I'll be getting on with them, and there's a 2-player game contest on BGG that Castle War might be a decent fit for, if I get my arse in gear...


Rear View

Happy new year! As is traditional, it's time to take stock of where I am, what I am doing, and where I am going.  So let's kick that off with a look at how last year was for me from a game design point of view.

In my forward-looking post last year I set myself six objectives.  These were all pretty woolly (not bothering with SMART stuff in this part of my life), but were at least something that would help me in a direction of travel, at least in principle.
Here are my hands, trimming rules sheets (or, at least, pretending to do so for the camera).

My first two objectives were about pitching my games and putting myself out there.  The first of which I definitely achieved by dint of presenting my game, Invaded, via the speed-dating event at UK Games Expo, which was a great, if extremely tiring experience. Objective two was to arrange a few pitch meetings (primarily at UKGE), and in the event I only had one of these pre-arranged, plus another that was a follow-up from the speed-dating.  I'll count this one as a partial, but need to try harder.

Next up I was hoping to take part in the 24 hour game design contest on Board Game Geek at least three times, but only actually managed two, so that's another "try harder" grade.  I also intended to try for a bigger contest; I fell short of getting into the Hippodice contest or any other higher profile event, but I did submit to the BGG wargame contest, so I think that gives me a pass mark, though not a distinction.

I also wanted to do some more collaboration with other designers.  I didn't manage to progress the projects that I had started off with others the previous year, but I did get something new started, and we got around a couple of early iterations.  I'm not sure if this game will actually get anywhere, but I have an idea of what to try with it next, so hopefully in the next few weeks I'll give that a go.

Finally, playtesting, that perennial challenge.  I got to the monthly Sunday meetup in London most months of the year, plus managed to have playtesting sessions at UK Games Expo and Dragonmeet, had a few other playtesting opportunities here and there, and hosted "official" playtest sessions at my house 11 times.  This isn't bad really, but it's nowhere near enough to make real progress with my projects, so I need to work on this.  One of my problems here is my lack of confidence and willingness to lean on people for playtesting.  I don't think there is really any way around this other than learning to ask for help more and cultivating the right sort of relationships.

I say finally, but there was more to my life over the last year, even some bits that weren't related to gaming, but I'll try to keep more or less on topic.

An interesting thing for me was turning Egge on Thine Face from a 24 hour design project to a print and play game with commissioned artwork, and then getting some nice copies made to give away to friends as gifts.  This extended my experience a little with creating an art direction document, preparing files for print, and so on, all of which is somewhat outside my comfort zone, but I now have a slightly better understanding of now.

I continued my occasional proofreading exploits through the year, and ended up signing up for an introductory course in the art.  I still have the last module of the course to complete (I plan to do that in the next few days) but have enjoyed it and learnt a load -- particularly learning a load about how much I don't know.  I'm planning to take a follow-up course, but already I feel that my approach to proofreading has moved forward a fair bit.

These last couple of points have reinforced my personal conviction that I do not want to be a publisher, but learning a bit more about some skills that are useful to publishers may be good for me in general, particularly if I ever try to make a living in this business.

I have had a few spells of just struggling to get motivated to do anything, but I'm finding that talking to people is often a help, but otherwise just trying to be kind to myself and not worry about it seems the way forward.  I have started getting back to reading books about history (lately it has been mostly early medieval Britain), which is proving to be an interesting diversion and also a source of inspiration -- one of my new games last year was inspired by one of these books.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has playtested any of my games over the last year, and everyone who has given other help, advice and support, including you for reading this blog!  You are all amazing and part of what makes game design such a great hobby to be part of. It's hard going at times, but it's the people who make it all worthwhile.


Train to Nowhere?

Just a quick post about the last of the games I've been working on over the last couple of weeks: Shenanigans Express.  This is one that I dreamed up back in April and threw together a quick prototype, hoping to get it to the table within a couple of weeks.  Well, nearly eight months later, I finally had that playtest!

This one was intended to be a short game with hidden roles and a degree of simultaneous action selection, with each player trying to complete their own mission, some of which involve other players. It's a style of game I haven't any experience in designing, so I thought it would be interesting to have a go.
All the items on the train have been claimed, and now everyone is trying to figure out what that means.

Anyway, having tried the game out with four players, everyone liked the idea, but the problem was that there was no real way to infer much information about the other players, or to make a plan for how to complete your own objective.  The main mechanism of everyone simultaneously selecting whether they would move or "act" on each round was kinda fun but was missing something. 

I have plenty of food for thought here, and would like to make a game along these lines, but I will have to mull things over for a while and see if inspiration comes.  Hopefully some point in the next few months...

So, it's nearly Christmas now, and this may well be my last post before the new year, so I'll just say thanks for reading, have a great Christmas and New Year, and see you in 2019...


Open Up and Say Arrrr!

Scurvy Crew is my oldest game in development, going back to pretty much the start of this blog -- it grew from an experiment that I discussed in my first "proper" post.  It is a game that has repeatedly come back into focus, had some development and testing, and then been put back on the shelf for a period of quite a few months.

The last few weeks have been one of those periods of activity after the game came back to mind for some reason (possibly actually that one of my local friends who sometimes playtests for me mentioned it not that long ago).  The issue that had been vexing me throughout the game's development is similar to what I see in many of my games: it took too long to explain and too long to play for the type of game I was trying to make.  I was previously aiming at under an hour, but on reflection I think this is another game that feels to me that it should be playable in half an hour and take maybe 5 minutes to explain.  I was running at well over double that.

With a few months of distance on the design (never underestimate the value of leaving a design for 6+ months if you are stuck) I decided that the system I had for players using multiple actions to capture a prize ship and then score according to who had contributed the most to the capture, was interesting but just slowed the game down.  Similarly, the mechanisms I had for player-versus-player battles took everyone out of the main flow of the game and slowed things down even more.

I ended up just scrapping all that, making prize ships just a one-shot to capture (the capturing player just keeps the prize ship for scoring -- and I thus scrapped the treasure deck too), and bringing all the player-versus-player stuff onto a few of the crew cards that can be activated to use instead of having a whole subsystem for combat.  Instead of having merchants/prizes in a row that needed upkeep, I just dealt them out into a grid (a stack of two cards per location) that players could move around to hunt their prey.  A few tweaks here and there to support these other changes and we were able to play...

A four-player game of Scurvy Crew v7, still early days with a lot of targets out there.
First we had a three-player game that took almost exactly half an hour, towards the end of which a fourth player turned up.  I went off to make a fresh round of coffees, leaving the experienced players to explain the game to the newcomer.  This was a bit cheeky of me, but I wanted to see how that worked out.  As it happened, by the time I brought the coffee, the new player was pretty much fully briefed -- it turned out later that he had missed a couple of points, but the experiment did show me that the game was now far easier to explain that it was in previous iterations.

Our second play, this time with four players, took a little longer, about 40 minutes, which I was happy with under the circumstances.  End game scores in the second play were somewhat lower than in the first, which I think was largely due to the set-collection system I am using for scoring being a bit disrupted by the extra player.  I'm not entirely convinced that the game's scoring system is right, but it's not too bad and didn't seem to produce unfair scores.  I'm not going to worry about it too much right now.

The flow of the game was, overall, pretty good, and it was nice to see a few variations in strategy being used, with one ship repeatedly returning to port for refitting and then making use of navigation skills to skip around the "board" rapidly, while another was staying at sea for long spells by cycling crew in and out more, for example.  There are, however, a whole load of cards that are either over- or under-powered as they stand.  I am happy enough with the general shape of the game right now that I think I will start looking at getting the balance issues addressed.


Castle War in London Once More

Another month, another playtest meetup in London, the last one of this year. And for a second month I took along The Castle War, my two-player card game inspired by the 12th century war in England between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda.  I've had a pretty productive time with this game over the last few weeks, with several useful playtests, and the game has been stripped back quite a lot in an attempt to make it quicker to learn and smoother and quicker to actually play.

I found my two volunteers, and after a little while playing one of their prototypes (an experimental storytelling game, which had some really interesting aspects, so it'll be great to see how it develops) and set about explaining the game.  Pleasingly this took a load less time that previous plays, but as it turned out this was a bit of an illusion, as several rules turned out to not be clear to the players, partly due to a weak explanation and partly due to wording or presentation of some components being less that ideal, but also, I think, a few points suggest that some of the rules may have been unintuitive.  I need to figure out which bits are this latter, as this is harder to fix than simply improving an explanation or some graphic design.

Getting into the second half of the game and quite a lot of forces on the table.
A few issues came up during play, like the way that the players didn't really click with how the dice are used to constrain card placement and give bonuses in combat, and there was a misunderstanding about how victory was to be calculated, but the things I picked up on as bigger issues at the moment are actually related to game balance.

One of the big issues, and one that has been bugging me throughout my work on this game, is the "withdraw" tactic.  The game has tactic cards that can be added to an army to modify the outcome of battle resolution, and the withdraw card allows a player to lure a lot of the opponent's forces to a battle, and then simply leave them there, ceding the ground to the enemy without fighting, and with a large part of their resources committed to the wrong place.  It made sense in my mind, but the structure of the game never incentivised players to use this option, and in practice it seems at best useless, and at worst counterproductive.  I've tried a few tweaks, but nothing has worked, and this test showed me that the problem has not gone away.

How to address an issue like this? Well, I was flirting with dropping the tactic entirely, but that felt like running away from the problem, and I really wanted to represent in the game the fact that, in the history, there were numerous examples of one side simply walking away from a conflict, effectively saying, "OK, you win!"

So, what is the real benefit of withdrawing your troops from a battle or a siege? Mainly so you don't lose valuable troops, and you have them to use elsewhere, I would say.  The problem is that, in this game, you are limited in how many cards you can play in a given turn, so having a lot of cards in hand may give you options, but it takes a long time to make use of them, thus invalidating that potential advantage.  To fix this I need to either make it so that you can play the additional cards more quickly, or make the withdraw tactic do something different.  What I will try out is allowing a withdrawal to move all the troops at a castle to an adjacent castle.  We'll see how that works out in play.

This is all effectively an issue of balance: if a card is such that nobody ever wants to play it, then it is not in balance with the rest of the game.  Normally I say that I worry about balance later in a game's development, but that is not entirely true: if some element of a game is grossly out of kilter, I do need to change it, partly because it distorts gameplay, but mostly because it is a distraction.  I often find that if something is massively over- or under-powered, even the most experienced playtesters tend to fixate on it and have difficulty seeing the rest of the game.

The other most distracting balance issue, I think, is that two unit types, knights and soldiers, are effectively identical other than the fact that knights are better than soldiers in terms of combat strength.  Where you have no real control over the cards coming to your hand, having some of them being objectively worse (in effectively every situation) than others can be a problem and lead to one player just having worse cards and thus less chance of winning.  I want to do something about this, so have been thinking through a few options that I will be tinkering with.  One that I am thinking about is to make knights more powerful, but those knights don't get benefits from having leaders with them, while soldiers do.

Overall, though, I was pleased with what I saw in the game this time.  It still has a long way to go, but the play time was only a shade over my target 30 minutes, and the game swung back and forth a couple of times during play and was finally decided right at the end -- although the aforementioned misunderstanding about game end scoring did take the shine off that a bit!

Feeling optimistic about this at the moment though.


Craghold Result

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

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


Of Dragons and Castles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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