Things that give tips in the night

Yet another project.

Back in June when I was working on the 24-hour game that ended up being called Frank Must Die, my daughter, Miss B, said that it reminded her of Frankenstein.  Then she got to riffing in things that sounded like Frankenstein and ended up with a restaurant called Frankendine which served monsters.
A sample of some of the customers attending the restaurant as envisaged by Miss B.

We chatted about this a bit as the idea tickled both of us, and ended up thinking of a card game where one set of cards are customers such as werewolves, vampires and zombies, each with types of food they like and dislike (vampires like blood and dislike garlic, natch) while another set of cards are ingredients for their meals.  If you can feed each monster appropriate food before they get too impatient, you get a tip.

Then, on BoardGameGeek, discussion started up about a new design contest for children's games, including a category for games designed by or with children.  This looked perfect for us and when I told her about it, Miss B was massively keen for us to enter our restaurant game.

And so, now the contest has started, be are beginning to work on the game in earnest.  So far we have tried playing a rough version of the game, now titled Fran-N-Dine, using regular playing cards, and Miss B has started work on some art for the cards.  We have a long way to go, but the deadline for submission is the 1st November, so we have more than two months to get things together.

If you would like to follow along, I'm sure I'll be posting updates here, but there is also a Work in Progress thread on BGG.


Weigh anchor and prepare to make more changes!

They say that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. I think it can also be said that no prototype created by a relatively inexperienced designer survives contact with a decent playtester. This weekend, my latest version of Scurvy Crew, which I was hoping was close to being released and put in front of anyone who is interested as version 0.2, went through a brutal ordeal with my star playtester: my wife.
Sharpies: your best friend for quick changes.

S. is not a regular gamer, so has not internalised all the shortcuts and conventions that I have absorbed over many years of playing board games. She is also used to having her work and those of others put through the intense scrutiny of scientific peer review, and as such is used to spotting weaknesses in an argument (or rule set) and asking very pertinent questions. In particular, if I have a rule that I introduced because it seemed to improve game play options or balance, but doesn't sit nicely with the theme, she will go straight to it like a BS-seeking missile and call me on it.

This is absolutely awesome and really helpful.

In this case, within minutes, we were making modifications to cards with Sharpies, and tweaking the rules regarding what actions are allowed at what time.  I think I now have a much better handle on what is working in the game and, more importantly, what is not.  As a result of this playtest, at the top of my to-do list are the following items...
  • There needs to be some sort of hand limit to stop card hoarding. 
  • There probably needs to be a limit for number of deployed crew (maybe a characteristic of the ships?) 
  • The sailing icons are mostly useless at sea, so we need something to help that -- I thought that maybe a crew can allow sailing to be used in attacks. 
  • The balance of prize ships is well off -- too many man o'wars in the deck, and it is pretty difficult (and requires quite a lot of luck) to capture a prize.
  • As we have decided that players should be able to transition backwards and forwards between sea and land, more or less at will, I need to find a nice way to handle this.


Leacock on Pandemic and game design

Continuing my current trend of studying game design more than actually doing it (bad Rob!), after someone shared a link in a thread on BoardGameGeek, I have just watched a nice Google tech talk by Matt Leacock. This was recorded in 2008, when his game Pandemic was still new and hadn't become the phenomenon it grew into, so it is interesting seeing how some of his comments (and questions from the audience) have been reflected in developments since then.  For instance, there was talk of an abandoned line of development where one player controls the diseases, something which basically became part of an expansion a year or so later.
Image grabbed from YouTube.

The title of the talk was "Cooperation and Engagement: What can board games teach us?" and there were some very interesting points about engagement (reduce friction and embody the players are key), but an overall theme of the talk seemed to me to be the value of iteration, with a lot of testing and observing how the game gets played.  He had a nice anecdote about a playtest group where a playtester called him out for intervening and correcting players when they got the rules wrong, telling him to shut up, sit in the corner and watch.  This resulted in realising some major flaws in the game as it was currently set up and a big step towards getting Pandemic into its final, published form.

There is a lot for me to think about in this talk, but I think one of the most powerful messages came from a short set of bullet points he showed fairly early on:

  • Find a spark.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it raw.
  • Find the core game.


Asymmetric sheep

I've just had a couple of plays of brand new, hot-off-the-press game, Te Kuiti, which one of the designers sent us to have a look at on Training a Gamer.  Expect a report there in the near future, but as a quick summary, we enjoyed it.
Box art nobbled from BoardGameGeek.com

From a game design perspective, though, the game is very interesting.  It effectively takes two very old traditional games (card matching game Memory, and the pencil and paper game Boxes) and mashes them together into a bizarre, asymmetric conglomeration.  So this actually hits two of my current interests: asymmetry and repurposing old and unloved (by "gamers") games.

I was recently moaning about the difficulty of designing asymmetrical games and making them satisfyingly balanced, but Te Kuiti is a classic example of a different approach: you make the game quick enough that players want to play at least twice, once each way, and then aggregate the scores across two plays.  Keep It Simple, Stupid!


Thoughts on a couple of new-to-me games

I had the pleasure of attending the Oxford Meeples Summer Day of Gaming for a while this weekend, and got to play a couple of new-to-me games, which both had me thinking about their designs and elements that stood out for me...
Pictures yoinked from BoardGameGeek.com

Istanbul was the winner of last year's Kennerspiel des Jahres, and is a really solid mid-weight Euro game, with decent levels of player interaction without actually attacking or blocking other players.
  • I really like the way that you can just bumble around, but planning where you will be, especially with respect to other players, is really worthwhile.  
  • The game end condition (first to gather five gems) works well, and I think that in general I like the way that you can see how well everyone is doing in general but cannot be sure when they will make a big push for the end game.  I won, but it was a nervous time as I tried to get my ducks in a row, particularly as I think at least one other player was very close to a big finish too.
  • As a first-timer I was very glad to be dealt a bonus card that kinda suggested an end-game, helping me plan a strategy pretty much from the word go.  Not everyone else got lucky in this respect.

Evolution is a game that has been getting some good press (including some enthusiastic comments in the latest Shut Up & Sit Down podcast), and is quite a bit lighter-weight than Istanbul.
  • The interaction between mutations/features is quite nice and different combinations can work well at different stages of the game.
  • The end of the game involves counting up tokens stowed in a little bag to see who has gathered the most, which felt a little anticlimactic (as similar scoring phases do in many other games), and there is only very limited scope for an end-game push.  
  • In our game, only one attempt was made to develop a carnivore, and that was short-lived, because early on everyone had already created large and/or well-defended creatures that were essentially impossible to prey on.  I got the impression from another attendee that, at least in their play group, carnivores have never been a viable avenue.  Maybe that's just because everyone defends, rather than looks for an efficient score.
  • Related, at the end of the game, three players had close scores, while one was a long way behind.  It was notable that the three leaders all made use of combinations of foraging and cooperation, making for quicker acquisition of food, while the loser wasn't able to do this.
  • I'm a bit less convinced by this one, largely because of the couple of points above making the game look like there may be an optimum strategy.  Now, I am sure that with experience this would break down (for instance, if everyone was using defences, the species not bothering with that may have an advantage; and that in turn may make carnivores more worthwhile), but it's amazing how a first experience like this can make the game look more limited.
I don't think I have any real insights or clever thoughts to pull all this together, I just wanted to note down some of the thoughts I had from a first play.  I guess that if anything comes out of this it is probably how important a first play can be, and how important the start of that first play is.


Funny shaped tiles

I've been thinking of an idea that has leapt unbidden to mind, which combines something from a blog post by Daniel Solis from over a year ago (it took me a little while to find the post to prove to myself that I wasn't imagining it) with one of my experiments from about the same time.

So, my part of the idea was trying to make a tile-laying game where you build a sort of kingdom, with resources from one tile allowing the placement of other tiles nearby.  The bit from Daniel was to use standard-sized playing cards as the tiles, which would work as squares but with an additional tab on one side to make up the rest of the rectangle.
A beautiful and bountiful landscape spreads itself before us.

I've not got very far with this yet, but at the moment I'm toying with the tabs showing a resource that the square produces.  When the tab gets covered over by another card, that square stops providing that resource, though you may have been able to place a marker onto it to allow the square to continue producing (like adding a mine or farm).  Probably there should be a rule to prevent the tabs getting covered too soon -- maybe you can only cover the tab after the other three sides of the square connect to something.

I've made some rough cards with some of my standard blank flashcards (an awesome resource -- every home should have some) and Sharpies, and this all looks at least a bit viable.  Now I need to work out what players can do with this.

More soon, probably.


Show Your Work!

I'm in the middle of reading an interesting book, kind of a motivational thing, by Austin Kleon, called Show Your Work! and, despite only being about a quarter of the way through, I'm already inspired to post something about it here.
Image yoinked from austinkleon.com
So the book is aimed at anyone who is working on creative projects and wanting to share the fruits of their work but not wanting to get heavily into marketing themselves.  It is all very much of the Internet age, and the central premise is that you should not work in secret, but instead work openly, showing what you do to the whole world, helping to build communities, and keep plugging away at what you love doing and keep learning.

One of the key points here is "share something small every day".  I'm not sure I'm in a place to share every day, but it makes sense to me to just share small things and not wait until I have something necessarily "worth sharing".  In that spirit, I'm going to do my best to increase my output on this blog.  I said at the start of the year that I would aim to post at least twice a month, but in the spirit of this book I'll aim for twice a week and see where that takes me.  Hopefully some of it will be of interest to someone.

Here goes...


Knock me down with a feather!

I really didn't expect this, but with the voting finally being wrapped up a few days ago, my entry to the June 24 hour game design contest won!
Run, run, run, run and climb tree, blam!

Actually, this is only a very small contest and for this month, only four people voted, but I got two of those votes and can thus bask in the small amount of glory that is available for a short while.

Of the games that I have submitted over the last few months, this is the one that I am least happy with, mostly because I just didn't have the time to do all the tweaking necessary to be a reasonably balanced game. I'm not sure if I'll continue developing this one, but I may end up reusing the basic mechanic some time.