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.


Expos and Pirates and Castles, Oh My!

That was quite some weekend! I was at UK Games Expo from Thursday afternoon (the day before it started) until it closed on Sunday afternoon, when it closed, and I am now home, tired but very happy about how things went.  Here are some only slightly organised thoughts.

I'll start with the most exciting part for me: I had a couple of meetings to pitch game designers to publishers, and both went extremely well, and the upshot is that Scurvy Crew and The Castle War are both now being evaluated by publishers to consider for publication.  This is still a long way from actually being published, or even a contract being signed, but it's great to even get this far.  I'm not going to say who the publishers are right now, but if anything comes of either of these, I will let you know what I am able.

The main focus for my days was, once again, the Playtest Zone, this time hidden in the back corner of the enormous Hall 1, where I was volunteering for all three of the mornings, and the main task was trying to match players up with designers at the tables, and be there to answer questions and offer general help.  This can be quite a challenge first thing in the morning, when most people at the convention are wanting to explore and see everything before settling down to play things, or they are specifically looking for the latest hotness, but later in the end, we tend to see people wandering in, looking for something to play, and the challenge is then to find a designer needing players. 

The games presented varied from hand-drawn early prototypes, right up to beautifully presented and professionally printed games that are ready to publish.  I often have a bit of a grumble about people using the space as a cheap way to promote their upcoming Kickstarter, of which there are always a few every year, but it doesn't really do any harm and it's probably not particularly efficient marketing. Also, more serious vetting of games would just antagonise people unnecessarily and would risk making it harder for new designers to get onboard, and that is against the ethos of the space.

I failed to take photos other than a couple of this playtest of Scurvy Crew.
I had a 90 minute slot for playtesting Scurvy Crew, during which I hoped to get a couple of plays through (it usually takes about 30 minutes), but in the event we only managed one play as one of my three players was finding the game confusing and hard going.  This was entirely my fault: I was watching the two players opposite me as I explained everything and they got on well with everything, but I didn't check the guy sitting next to me, who it turned out wasn't used to playing hobby games, so would have appreciated a more thorough explanation with fewer shortcuts. Eventually (rather too late) I realised what was going on, apologised and stressed that his misunderstanding was my fault and not his, and helped him through a couple of turns, after which he started to get more comfortable and make more solid decisions. 

Aside from the issue with the struggling player, the game played pretty smoothly and engaged the players who found a couple of different approaches to playing. The players gave a few useful pieces of feedback, but mostly gave me a little extra confidence in the game, which didn't fall apart in any real way.

Later in the afternoon I had another play (I'd count it as a play rather than a proper playtest) with a couple of friends who wanted to check it out, and I actually really enjoyed playing it without feeling that I had to take notes or feedback.  All good for the confidence.

On Friday evening there was the Designer-Publisher Networking Event, which is ostensibly an opportunity for designers and publishers to meet in an informal setting, but there were few publishers, and to be fair, I'm not sure many of them would have welcomed being hassled by a swarm of us rookie designers wanting to pitch games to them after a long and tiring day.  What it was in practice was a comparatively relaxed opportunity to have a drink and a chat with fellow designers to compare war stories, and a couple of interesting talks from Alex Yeager and James Wallis, both good speakers, and both with fun topics -- one of the games I bought in the trade halls was a direct result of one of the talks.

Aside from all this, I managed to have half-decent meals in the evenings (a definite improvement from previous years) and then spend some time with friends, old and new, playing a few games. These days it's proving not-too-hard to find gaming space in the NEC halls in the evenings (though still a nightmare at the Hilton end of the Expo), and I managed to stumble into playing with strangers on two separate evenings, which was nice.

Lots of people post pics of their "haul" from conventions, so here's mine.

So I reckon that this year was my best overall experience at UK Games Expo so far, probably helped somewhat by the fact that I was really comfortable and slept well in my hotel, another thing that rarely happens.  I'm really looking forward to next year, and need to get started on figuring out what games I'm planning to pitch at that point.


I hear the creak of the big machine...

On Sunday of last week (once again I got distracted by other things before finishing this post) was my last major playtesting opportunity before UK Games Expo, and was the monthly trip to London. I always plan to arrive long before the start of the playtesting, so I can have a relaxed coffee and sandwich by way of preparation, and this time I bumped into Bez (of Yogi/In a Bind fame, amongst others), who was training a couple of volunteers for her stall at Expo, so I got "taught" a few short games (that I happened to already know) as part of their practice, which was good fun.

The prototype games designed by others that I played were a "Simon Says" style party game, a very nearly done game of city building, a real-time (app assisted) action, and a game about not being too good at your job.  Lots of good stuff in varying stages of development.

The game I took with me was the Steampunk Workshop game, having mutated into its "Big Machine" version and lost most of the features from its first couple of iterations and become something very different.

The machine is slowly extending, but has some way to go.

So the headline news is that most of the details of the game are broken -- the balance is all to pot and there are points where things can get gummed up -- but it looks like I have finally found something approximating a game here, so I can start working on tidying up the details.

The biggest issue here was that it took too long for players to be able to afford to buy the gadgets that act as victory points and special abilities. I did end up giving everyone some additional resources part way through the game to help this, but I think it was too late to see how the gadgets really effect the game.  Furthermore, there is one of the gadgets which shunts other players around, and this was seen to be overpowered and frustrating if you aren't the person who has it.  I rather like this particular gadget, but if it turns out to be more of a problem than a benefit (and it could dictate the flavour of the game) then it will have to go.  It will be interesting to see how it works in a game where everyone has more gadgets available to them.

There were plenty of other comments and observations, but the notable point is that they were pretty much all about details rather than the big picture, which was mostly left unscathed.  So I think I now have the basis on which I can build this game.  It actually doesn't include the mechanism that got me started down the track, but that is not a particularly unusual thing to happen. 


Let's Go Expo...

If you are in the UK and care about such things, you are probably aware that UK Games Expo is coming up at the end of this month.  I'll be heading up there once again and have been making plans, as is necessary. So, here we go (everything may change, but this is the plan so far)...

I'll be heading up to the NEC on Thursday and hopefully meeting and chilling with a few people on the eve of the event proper.  The show runs from Friday to Sunday, and I have volunteered to help out in the Playtest Zone for all three mornings, so you know where to find me (stand 1-184, apparently).
A pic stolen from the UKGE website. In a game of Where's the Wally, can you spot me?
I have meetings for a chunk of Friday afternoon, pitching some games. I'm not going all-in on pitching, but have been talking to a few publishers with the intention of slowly building up relationships.  Friday evening is the Designer-Publisher networking event from 9pm, before which I hope to have something to eat and maybe even play a game.

On Saturday afternoon I am booked in to playtest Scurvy Crew from 3 to 4:30. Hopefully that will be enough time to get a couple of play-throughs, given that the game usually takes about half an hour, and only a few minutes to explain.  If you fancy having a go, come on down! (Or you can collar me any other time you find me free.)  I may end up getting another playtest slot some time, but we'll have to see.

Looking forward to seeing lots of people in a couple of weeks -- and I may even get to play a few games!


Scurvy Guild

For the last few months I've been having once-per-month-mostly meetups with a couple of game designer friends from a town that is a little over an hour's drive away from me.  Most of the time they have been coming to my house, but this month we expanded our meet to include several other designers from the general vicinity, and one of them hosted the event. This is what we considered to be the inaugural meeting of the "Wessex Guild of Game Designers", named for the ancient Saxon kingdom we live in -- they near the middle and me near the edge.

While a group of the others played a cool sounding race game in the other room, I had a couple of designers playing Scurvy Crew with me, trying out the relatively small changes I had made since last time.

As I remember, Blackbeard was about to discover a big treasure ship which Yellowbeard used all his capabilities to swoop in and steal, but received a retaliatory broadside from Blackbeard. Redbeard sought his own quarry.

The game was a little slow, but this was largely due to having a new player and doing quite a lot of chatting as we played.  Even so, the 45 minute playtime didn't seem unreasonable for the style of game. I usually use a playmat to keep the game in order, but didn't this time, and everything was fine. During play, there was a suggestion to use a supply of tokens to mark the sea spaces that have been cleared of merchants. We rolled this into play as we went; this actually worked really well, and for the cost of eight tokens, there was a nice, easy to track countdown to the end of the game. I'm now starting to think that these tokens could even have some sort of an effect, but that's probably unnecessary at this point.

The play didn't really identify any substantive problems, though I still have work to do on getting the cards balanced up properly  There was another suggestion that I liked: some of the merchant ships could provide you with additional crew when you capture them. We decided to have another play and implemented this by reducing the points value of some of the merchantmen, but allowing you to draw a card from the crew deck if you captured these ships.

This change didn't make a huge difference to the game, but it did seem to add a small extra decision sometimes, fit the theme of the game, and added almost nothing to the complexity. The numbers we used were probably not right, but the change seems to add nicely to the game, so I'll take a look at how to incorporate this in a more solid way.  This second play came in at bang on half an hour, despite being quite tactical and cagey at times; I am very happy with that.

Apart from my own game, I also tested a game about building up a town and trying to stop it falling down due to the ravages of time (the designer describes it as a "1X game"), a lightweight car racing game, and a game about building robots, all of which are well on their way. As is usually the case for this sort of event, I missed out on some other great looking stuff too, but them's the breaks.


Testing the Workshop

April's London playtesting trip was delayed to avoid the Easter weekend, and then disrupted largely because of the London Marathon that was on the same day, but it took place nonetheless, relocating to a coffee shop up the road from the usual pub.

Once everything had been sorted out we had a great afternoon of testing. I played a nice midweight Euro and a few plays of a small card-overlapping game, both of which were enjoyable and showed some real promise. I brought along the "Steampunk Workshop" game I posted about a couple of weeks ago; it was still very much an early-stage design, but had enough about it to be playable, and I had three volunteers to give it a go.

Using a bag of resources and discs to put them on does make the game look a little like Azul.
Feedback was generally supportive, but critical. It seems that the flow of the game is pretty good, but the players had thoughts on the three main decisions you make in the game: which resources to take, how to distribute newly arrived resources, and which gadgets to claim. All of these are OK decisions to make, but in practice they are generally trivial and obvious when it comes to it.

We had a bit of a discussion about this and agreed that one issue is due to the way that I naively derived the values of gadgets from the resources used for them. I could approach fixing this by adjusting the values of gadgets according to the usefulness of the abilities they provide, but another  possible approach (which is not mutually exclusive) would be to add a level of set collection, which could make gadgets naturally become more or less valuable to players according to what they have collected so far. An extension of this (thanks to Dean for the idea being "for free"!) is that you could arrange your acquired gadgets in a tableau, and if you can match the edges of adjacent cards, there could be a bonus -- either for scoring, or potentially some sort of bonus actions or modifiers.

This last idea about edge matching has actually given me a further idea, which is kind of a development branch from this game, and I have been toying with it over the last few days.  I expect I'll be talking about that in the not-too-distant future.

The distribution of resources to the hoppers is an interesting point too, as in the game's current state, when you put new resources out, the logical thing to do is to minimise the absolute value of the resources in any given hopper where you can.  This is possible because the resources are set up to have distinct values, both in terms of rarity and what they contribute to the victory point value of gadgets they buy.  The point above about making gadgets have different values according to circumstance could at least partially address this, but we also had some discussion about how resources get delivered to hoppers, which could be more random (no player agency in this part), or follow a set path, maybe with a "supervisor" figure circling the hoppers, indicating where the next delivery is placed. Another possibility would be to "recycle" resources as they are spent, putting them back into hoppers.  All of these could be a big improvement in available decisions, so I plan to try out some variants along these lines.

In the meantime, though, I'm temporarily diverting course to the "edge matching" tableau game to see where that goes. It is entirely possible that this could merge back in with the resources-in-hoppers game. We shall see...


London Bog Castles

Muppet that I am, I wrote up a post about my London playtest trip last month and then forgot to post it. I only realised this today, more than a month later.  So, please note that the following was written weeks ago...


This month's playtesting trip to London coincided with St Patrick's Day, and realising this a week or two in advance nudged me into dragging Corlea, my game about building a trackway through a bog in Iron Age Ireland, back onto the workbench and seeing if I could get it into shape following some serious problems with it a few months ago.

A big element of the original concept of the Corlea game was that building the trackway created new action spaces that you could use, and players would progress along it in a "Tokaido" style (the player at the back can move as far forward as they wish).  This never worked as I wanted it to, and I decided that this was a darling that I should kill, and so I rebuilt the game with something closer to a regular "worker placement" mechanism.  And that is what I tested.

The Corlea board could definitely do with a redesign: it gets hugely cluttered!

When playtesting it is important to know what you want to get out of the exercise and can also be useful to let your players know what you are wanting from them.  In this case, I knew that the balance of the scoring elements of the game, and the usefulness of various cards and possibly action spaces, was likely to be questionable at least.  I asked my testers (who were, remember, game designers themselves) to try to ignore game balance for now and just see how the game flows and help me decide if I had something that felt like a game rather than an exercise in frustration like the previous version.  If it passes this test, I can start looking at the details.

So how did we do?  Well, I think the game passed the initial smell test.  Quite a lot went right: turns zipped along, so downtime was not long, total playtime was just short of an hour, pretty much nailing the sweet spot I was aiming for, decisions felt reasonably interesting most of the time (though got less so later on), we saw some variety in styles of play thanks to some of the skill cards and, slightly comically and unexpectedly given that I was certain that the game had horrible balance problems, the end game scores were reasonably close.

There were plenty of problems we found.  For instance the set collecting part of crafting and burying offerings just didn't hang together properly, there was no lure to get players to try collecting "King's Favour" (one-off, instant effect) cards, later in the game the positioning of workers in various tasks became rather stale, we ran out of one of the stacks of cards, and various effects felt either over or under powered.  All these things are totally solvable, and I count this playtest as a huge success: the game overall mostly worked and I now have a list of things to look at next.  Onward!

After playing a couple of other games from another designer, we reached the point where everyone who had brought a prototype had had at least one play, and the afternoon was getting fairly late, so people started to leave.  I did, however, manage to get a quick test of my two-player Castle War card game with a designer I was chatting with.

This play of Castle War was basically a casual play-through, with only a minor tweak since my last try of it, hoping to largely get another perspective on the issues identified in other recent tests.  The outcome was that the minor tweak (which was just a slight nerfing of an effect) seemed to have been positive, and the feedback I got closely aligned with feedback and observations from my last play or two.  Essentially the game could do with a little more ability to manoeuvre troops, the unit types didn't seem as distinct as maybe they should (though maybe that's not actually a problem), and occasionally you can end up with a hand of cards that is just useless in your current situation, so we want a little more flexibility there.

So, all in all another really enjoyable and productive day. Thanks due to everyone who attended and made it so good, as always.