24 hours of assassins - and follies

This month's 24 hour game design contest had the requirement "assassin", which clearly had lots of people thinking in all sorts of different directions.

For my part, memories came back of a scene from one of the Inspector Clouseau films (it turns out that it was The Pink Panther Strikes Again) where Clouseau is bumbling his way through Oktoberfest in Munich looking for clues, while an international horde of assassins hunt him down because the now-insane Dreyfuss has convinced the entire world that only the death of Clouseau will prevent the use of a doomsday machine.  Or something like that.  Of course, the assassins are almost as incompetent as the Inspector, and only succeed in accidentally killing each other off one by one.  For a dose of Peter Sellers versus the world (and dubbed into German on this occasion, though there is little dialogue), you can look here.
An innocent bystander wanders closer to harm's way...

So I wanted to make a game inspired by that scene, but was acutely aware that I could fall into just reimplementing the very silly and fun Kill Doctor Lucky, so I needed a different angle.  I decided that what I would do would be to create an asymmetric two-player game, meaning that each player would have different objectives and, in fact, different ways to play the game. One player would play a team of assassins, hunting their target (and trying to avoid getting in each others' way), while the other player would control their hapless prey.

If you have tried designing this sort of thing before, you will know that asymmetry is hard.  You have to ensure that everyone has an interesting play experience and that everyone has a chance of winning.  To achieve this you either need to do a lot of modelling, followed by a lot of playtesting and tuning, or you need to just do a heck of a lot of guesswork and a ludicrous amount of playtesting.  All this before you really have a game that's even worth playing.  As with any of this game design racket, you can get better at it, developing your instincts and your toolbox of tricks, but this is still a hard class of game to challenge.

I then compounded my folly by deciding to move out of another design comfort zone.  Over the last couple of years I have really come to rely on cards in my designs, even in games that are not what you might call "card games", having some aspects handled with cards is really convenient.  You see it all around: a very large proportion of modern hobby boardgames include an aspect of card play.  So I decided I would avoid the use of cards this time.

Actually, this was a good decision, I think.  I have a stock of meeples, counters, tokens, etc. for prototyping use and I don't really get great use of them at the moment, so this was my moment.  Plus, instead of having to create several sheets of cards to print and cut out, I ended up with two pages of print and play components: one being a map/board, and the other being a player mat to track the actions of the assassins.  Everything else was just meeples and tokens.

I spent my first few hours on the game repeatedly playing partial games against myself on a hastily thrown together map board, each time revising the rules a little in order to improve on something that started extremely shoddy and half-arsed.  A few changes worked out, some didn't, and I ended up with something that mostly worked.

The next day I did a load of work at writing up the rules and creating materials suitable for submission to the contest, and when Miss B returned from school she helped me by playing through the game a couple of times.

By the time I submitted, I had made a last couple of minor changes, but it looks like the "prey" player has a definite advantage, and actually more interesting decisions to make than the assassin player.  The game is deeply flawed, but has provided a fascinating learning experience.  I don't know if I'll develop this game further, but I think I'll be taking another shot at an asymmetric two-player game again some time.

If you would like a look at the game, here are the download links...
Frank Must Die version 0.1 Rules on Dropbox
Frank Must Die version 0.1 PnP Materials on Dropbox


Boogie Knights 0.2: Electric Boogaloo

It is done!  Well, more-or-less.  I have made a load of changes and now have Boogie Knights version 0.2.
Still no Turner Prize, but the cards are coming along.

The rules have not changed much, though I have added some "wizard" equipment, which provides magic, which sweeps out the contents of the armoury (dealing with the "stale cards" issue that got mentioned during playtests) and allows you to steal a piece of equipment from another player (some playtesters were wishing for more ways to "stuff" other players).  I had considered not allowing the blind draw from the deck, but decided to leave that in for now.

The big changes are in the cards themselves, most significantly in the balance of the cards.  There are now a lot more challenge cards, including ones which allow you to choose a target, and a new class of challenge which makes for a grand contest between all players at the same time.

I have started overhauling the artwork of the equipment cards, so many of them are now in a new form which is closer to the "mix & match flipbook" idea that I have for the presentation; it's still rough, place-holder art, but hopefully it gets the idea across.  I wanted to get this set of cards made sooner rather than later, though, so I haven't yet finished this new art, meaning that some of the cards just don't look right together, but the next version should be more consistent.  Also, I decided to drop the card title for equipment, relying solely (for good or ill) on the illustration.  Unfortunately this means that some of the cards have a touch of "WTF is that meant to be?!", but hopefully that won't matter too much right now.

As an aside, artwork is always a thorny issue for prototypes.  Most of the old hands at game design say that you shouldn't invest in artwork for an unfinished game, largely on the grounds that most publishers will want to arrange for their own art as part of the process of preparing the final product.  I would definitely agree with this, and won't be spending money on art any time soon, but I've actually been really enjoying applying my limited artistic talent to this game.  As I want all the graphics to line up, I made a simple template to use as a base for all the different figures that get split into three parts.  I have so far made four of the planned eight figures as very simple line art, and when they are all done I plan to add some colour to liven things up a little.

Something I haven't done properly for version 0.2 is to ensure that there is an appropriate balance of bonuses for disco and combat, so that is a task I will definitely need to do for 0.3.  I don't think it's too far off right now, but I may be proved wrong on that.  I have also left some "neutral" (no bonus) cards in the set, which is probably not ideal, but we'll see how that works out.

Now, I think I am probably in a place to start a Work-In-Progress thread for Boogie Knights on BoardGameGeek in the hope of getting a little more external input.

In case you would like a look at the current state of the game, you can download the print and play materials...
Boogie Knights v0.2 Rules on Dropbox
Boogie Knights v0.2 Cards on Dropbox


Where things are at right now

I just thought it would probably be worth making a note of the projects that I have on the go, and a sentence or so about the status of each.

Boogie Knights...  Working on a revised version following playtest feedback.  Should be able to get that to the table very soon.  Incidentally this is up for voting in the May 24 hour contest on BGG, where there is some very stiff competition; well worth looking for the sheer variety of interpretations of "Knight" for a game.

Scurvy Crew...  Still in mid-revision, with crew cards mostly overhauled but a lot of work yet to do on treasure cards, which are being converted to merchant ships to capture.  This is quite a major overhaul, but has been stalled due to other projects and other demands on my time.  Hopefully I'll get the new version sorted in the next few weeks.

Tooth Fairies...  Would like to work on this some more, but is currently on hold.

Space Station 7...  Stalled for the time being.  Having done early experiments to test the very basics, I had a big heap of work to get to the next stage.  I'm probably about 3/4 of the way to another playable prototype, so hopefully I'll find some time to push this through to being playable.

El Tiddly...  Also stalled.  Again, early experiments show promise, but in this case I don't think it would take long to get a playable full game.  Maybe soon.

So what now?  Well, the priority is to get a new version of Boogie Knights fixed up, at which point I will probably start a Work-In-Progress thread about it on BoardGameGeek.  Then I think completing this stage of work for Scurvy Crew would be the next job.  After that we'll have to see.

Of course, there may well be an interruption for the June 24 hour contest, which has "assassin" as a requirement, and this has me thinking about the scene in The Pink Panther Strikes Again where Clouseau is being pursued through Oktoberfest by an international army of assassins, so I may well try to put together a game along those lines as long as I can figure out how to prevent it being a bad copy of Kill Doctor Lucky.


Expo Boogie

So, I'm back from my first multi-day trip to UK Games Expo and, apart from playing a heap of games, mostly new to me, buying a few, and having some great chats with friends old and new, I managed to attend the playtest session run by Playtest UK, and had a 90 minute slot for running games of Boogie Knights, after which I stayed on to try out someone else's game.
Actual people, actually playing my actual game.

I'll just mention this other game... It was a resource management/conversion game with some very nice features, designed by Dave Mortimer.  This game is totally my sort of thing and had me fully engaged all the way through, to the point that I wasn't paying any attention at all to the fabulous looking prototype with dinosaurs and cowboy minis on the next table.  I'm really looking forward to seeing how Dave's game develops.

Anyway, on with the playtest report.  I had two volunteers, a couple (I think), very quickly and we played a three-player game before being joined by another lady to make it four for another game -- and, yes, the original players were (or at least seemed) keen to play again.  After that play through, these folk were replaced by another couple for another three-player run.  The game was quick to explain and took about 20 minutes each time.

It was also interesting to note that in every game we needed to reshuffle the deck only twice, and I think this means that the deck is probably just about big enough to support a four-player game -- I would really like to have the game comfortably playable with 54 cards as this number works really well with most "print on demand" services, and only required six pages to print out for print 'n' play purposes.

In the evening, I joined a couple of guys (and some others who dropped in and out of the table) for assorted games, and they said that they had seen Boogie Knights in the playtest zone but weren't able to get to play.  Fortunately I had brought the cards with me, so we had another play then.

So, what did I learn?

Well, overall the concept of the game went down well and drew people to the game, and folk seemed to think that the mechanics of the game fit the theme pretty well.  My playtesters in the afternoon spent a lot of time laughing, and there was a little light table-talk about the reasons for swapping, say, a lance for a tambourine, and all this made for lively and fun play.  All of this was very gratifying and suggested I was working along the right lines.

I also showed some concept sketches to give an idea of how I imagine the final artwork could be, and these went down very well indeed.
I won't be winning the Turner Prize for this, but at least it gives an idea of the direction this game's presentation could take.

Of course, it might be excellent for the ego if all the comments were positive, but it wouldn't be very helpful for game development, and all the playtesters were very helpful with constructive criticism.  The evening session was especially useful in this respect, as we weren't limited by time like we were during the official playtest period and we were able to discuss some aspects of the game fairly thoroughly.

I'll sum up the major points...

  • There were points in each of the games when players had little to do other than just switching equipment around.
    • One suggestion was to increase the proportion of challenge cards.
  • Sometimes players ended up without useful or interesting cards.
    • There were a couple of requests to be able to discard cards.
  • The challenges versus a target number seemed a bit hard.
    • Could there be challenges of different difficulties?
  • Some players wanted to be able to pick on or mess with other players more often.
  • In the four-player game, you couldn't challenge the player opposite.
  • Some thought that the randomness of the die rolls was a bit too swingy.
    • Though one player said that for such a quick, light game, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if it was more random and chaotic.
  • Sometimes the cards in the armoury languish there for a (long) while, so maybe there should be some way to clear them out.
  • While, on discussion, everyone could understand the merit of having "neutral" equipment (which can cancel penalties, even if they don't add bonuses), it still seems like playing them makes for a bit of a "non-move".
  • The iconography and graphical design needs a lot of cleaning up.
    • But I knew that, and the playtesters all accepted that this was something that would come later.
So, I think I have a lot of food for thought and plenty of really valuable feedback to be going on with.  I will definitely be tweaking the number of challenge cards in the deck (and the difficulty of the target number challenges), and this will probably address a few problems if I get it right.  Less duplication in the deck would also improve things.  I am also pondering on having things like a wizard's robes, hat and wand as equipment, which would probably be neutral for combat or disco, but may have other effects, like clearing and re-supplying the armoury.  A feel a new version heading this way...

Many thanks to my fine and very helpful playtesters over the weekend: Tom, Paula, Lynn, Khia (I hope I got your name right), Craig, Liam and Paul.  You were all awesome.