Shooting in London

This weekend was 2016's final Sunday playtest session in London and, having missed the last couple, I was eager to get along.  My plan was to take Invaded (the game about being attacked by a non-player colonial power) along, but over the last couple of weeks a new opportunity has come up, so I rethought things and I ended up taking along a game that is rather early in its development life but that I managed to get far enough with that I felt it was at least playable.
My basic prototypes definitely have a "look" to them.
Right now I don't feel I can go into great detail about this project for a couple of reasons, but in essence, what we have is a game of big game hunters going out to "bag" fantasy-style monsters.  I had four volunteers to try the game out, so I sat out to observe and act as the rulebook.

And then I experienced one of the most brutal take-downs of my game that I have had so far.  It quickly became apparent that there were too many rules, and many of them didn't make sense to anyone but me.


But the general consensus was that there was a lot of fun to be had with this game if I can clear the deadweight away and tidy up the bits that are left.  We identified the parts of the game that were the most fun, and which just got in the way, so now I have a lot of information to be going on as I develop the next version.

I think that this is one of the most important skills to learn as a neophyte game designer: the ability to take criticism, to avoid being defensive, and to see what the feedback is really telling you.  Here, I actually had four people telling me what they wanted to do in this game (and what they felt was fun) and letting me know what parts of the game are making that harder.  What they wanted to do mostly lines up with the main concept of the game, and most of the bits that were getting in the way were elements that I thought would add more interest to the game.  Based on this, I think most of those extra elements will be dropped for the next iteration, but some of them are ideas that I may be able to reintroduce in a modified form later, if the game needs them (and it may not).  In the meantime, though, I need to find the core of the game and make it as much fun as I can.

Before moving on, I'd like to just extend special thanks to David Turczi. All of the testers were hugely helpful, but David put a lot of effort into questioning just about every part of the game, accepting some of my responses, arguing against others, and highlighting all sorts of problems, while also giving some solid general advice and saying a few very nice things about some parts of the game.  His, and everyone else's, input left me feeling a bit bruised, but really positive about the future of the game.

Of course, this being a playtest meetup, it's not all about my projects, and I was able to play a good selection of other games varying in completeness from just about ready to publish down to very early and creaky but showing promise.  So I played a micro-wargame about the War of the Roses, a game about printing money to rescue struggling businesses, a car racing game with a really interesting "exhaust" mechanism, a game about time travel and saving the world, and a really cute game about rescuing baby dragons.    It's really inspiring to see the huge range of what is being worked on -- and these only amounted to barely a third of the games being tested on the day.

So, I now need to get back to working on that Shooting Party game.  Time is a-ticking.


Keeping Score in My Name Is...

In my recent tests of My Name Is..., one of the key elements I was trying to figure out was how to keep score.  A game of this sort probably doesn't really have to have a totally robust scoring system as playing it is mostly about the interaction between players on a social level, but it still needs a way to determine a winner that feels reasonable to the players.

The original version of the game had counters which moved around as challenges were made, and they provided a measure of success.  In the latest iteration, the counters have gone and scoring is being done with cards themselves: if you successfully challenge someone, you add the cards in their "live" stack to your score pile, and if your challenge is unsuccessful they gain your stack.
Some games look compelling when they are set up on the table. This is not one of those games.

This now opens up a question: should the winner be determined by who has been "correct" in the most challenges, or by who has accumulated the most cards in their score pile?

Luckily, it's possible to try both methods out simultaneously.  If one approach or the other is chosen, it might change how some people play the game, but I figure that those players would be in a minority, and possibly not the core target audience anyway.

So, what I have done for recent playtests is ask players to keep the cards they gain in challenges in separate piles so we can count how many "tricks" (that's technically an inappropriate term but it's what I'm thinking in my head) they win as well as how many cards they have in total.  I can record both sets of scores, along with what I call the "people's choice", where I ask everyone who they feel did best in the game and thus deserved to win.

This last point is one that I need to remember for the future.  It won't be appropriate for all games, but I think that for many it would be a really useful piece of feedback to ask for.  Where scores aren't being obviously tallied in a game, players often have a perception of who they feel is doing the best.  This is often mistaken, and surprise turnarounds can really add excitement to an endgame, but I think that seeing how well players' perceptions line up with the actual result may be very interesting.

I have so far only run a couple of test games using this game, but in both cases, all three measures lined up pretty well.  The player who everyone believed did the best amassed the most cards and either took the most "tricks" or tied for the most.  I am planning to do a few more playtests using this approach, but it is actually looking like whichever scoring scheme I settle on will probably be fine.  I'm guessing that the "just count the cards" system is probably best (pending further data) as, while there is a bit more counting, it is simpler (people do manage to get mixed up trying to track those tricks) and has the added benefit of being far less likely to result in a tie.


Meeting Dragons

I have been meaning to go to the Dragonmeet convention for many years.  It is a one-day annual event that has been held in London for decades, and has a great reputation for being fun and friendly.  The focus has traditionally been roleplaying, but these days it seems to be a general tabletop gaming event.  Finally, this weekend I managed to make the trip.
Once again I totally failed to take a usable photo, so here's this year's t-shirt design, totally yoinked from the Dragonmeet website. I hope they don't mind.
I can't tell you much about the con overall as I spent most of my time in the Playtest UK area, but I can say that there was a good trade hall, which included spaces for gaming of various types (including the "best of Essen" tables and the playtest zone), and roleplaying games, seminars and other stuff was taking place somewhere or other.  Oh, and the venue was comfortable, reasonably spacious, had good toilets, and was only about 5 minutes' walk from the nearest tube station.

Anyway, hanging around the playtest area allowed me to see a lot of great looking prototypes, and managed to play a few of them: a game about building skyscrapers, a game based on running game shows (with a modified Monty Hall mechanism), and a game about rolling dice to build gene sequences.

I had taken along "My Name Is...", which I am now usually describing as an ice-breaker game of memory and mental agility, which seems to both scare and intrigue people.  We had two plays of the game with different groups (I joined in on one of them) and had very different experiences with them.

The first group provided a constant flow of questions, suggestions, arguments and interruptions, identifying quite a lot of issues that need thinking about.  There was one player in particular, who was quite assertive in poking at the game and at me, but it was in good humour and he was genuinely being helpful (and, pleasingly, on the feedback form gave the game top marks for "fun").  This group had some roleplaying of opinions that turned up on cards, and some fairly tight policing of the rules about when turns finish and challenges are allowed.

The second group was a great contrast, just grokking the idea of the game immediately (with one or two questions after starting) and playing in a really relaxed way.  A few turns in and it looked like this group were old hands, and I could just sit back and watch as they played at their own pace, effectively house ruling an easy-going attitude to the challenges.  I have to say that while the feedback from this group was less informative in itself, it was the best feeling in the world to just watch a group chatting and laughing about the game and (to my eyes) thoroughly enjoying it.  This tells me that the game as it stands definitely has an audience, and that I am not heading up a blind alley.  Of course, I need to make the game work for more groups than this one (though it definitely worked for the other group too), but it's a good start.

Overall this was a really good experience and a helpful session, and I have a few notes for things to experiment with, including some possible alternate titles.

I should also mention that last week I started a thread on this game on Board Game Geek, asking for help for card subjects, and had a few people giving some very useful suggestions (some of which made it into the card set I was using here), plus a really interesting idea to try making the game into something other than the love/hate a subject that it is now... I will be thinking about this as it could be really cool if I can figure it out.


Grimmly Available

The last few weeks have been slow for me from a game design and testing point of view for a number of reasons, but they haven't been entirely unproductive.  My big achievement has been to get my second game into the BGG database.  As of earlier this month, Giftmas with the Grimms has officially been a thing, and if you go to its BGG page, you can find the files allowing you to to make a print and play set.  

What is more, I managed to get a few sets made up using cards printed via ArtsCow and distributed at the event the game was designed for.  I haven't heard if anyone has played it yet, but I consider it a small success.
Giftmas with the Grimms, with ArtsCow cards and spread on a bit of baize (not included).
Other than that, I have started to make some headway with my reverse-colonialism game, building a new set using what I have learnt from early tests (which used components plundered from other games).  And finally, I am preparing for a trip to Dragonmeet in London this coming weekend, where I am planning to spend most of my time around the Playtest UK zone, where I have booked a slot (13:00 to 14:30 -- come and say hello!) to test My Name Is..., my lightweight (but occasionally painful) game of memory and mental agility.  I will report on all this stuff soon.


Thirsty Playtests

After a bit of a playtesting drought over the last couple of months, things have started to improve.  I have managed to persuade a few people to try my "Secret Satan" game, which is now known as "Giftmas with the Grimms", and is my most popular prototype with my daughter, Miss B.  And better still, I was able to get to a Playtest UK meetup in Oxford.

Oxford is a load closer to me than the London meetups I have been attending, but it is an evening meet, which has disadvantages, and the dates haven't fallen right for me previously, so it was nice to finally get along to meet a different group.  This meetup takes place at the Thirsty Meeples boardgame cafe, which unfortunately means paying a cover charge to sit at a table, and it's a little cramped, but it is also a totally awesome place with brilliant staff who bring you good coffee.

There were seven of us there last night and we were given two tables between us, and had games running on both tables for much of the evening.  I was lucky enough to get a five-player play of Boogie Knights in, getting half way through before the last couple of people turned up.
I don't have a photo to share from the meetup, so here's a picture of some modified Boogie Knight cards.

This was a big deal, as I have made a fundamental change to Boogie Knights, which had been working consistently well in playtests, but I had been bugged by a steadily flow of comments asking if it would be possible to remove the dice.  I know some people love the tension of using dice to resolve contests, but that also a good number of people feel that using dice in this way is a terrible mistake that removes both fun and challenge.  Recognising that whatever I do I won't please all the people, and also taking onboard some games industry insider advice that in general it is good to reduce the number of types of component (so cards plus score markers is more attractive to some publishers than cards plus score markers plus dice), I resolved to at least experiment.  I pencilled a number (from 1 to 6) onto each card, decided that in challenges players choose a card from hand to act as in lieu of a die roll, and made a few other rule tweaks to support the change.  This was quite a while ago and I just never quite managed to get the new version of the game into a playtest.

Until last night.  The headline news is that basically it works, and the players were enthusiastic about the change (I explained the previous form of the game).  There are a few rough edges to deal with, but this looks like I could be heading in the right direction.

Following that I got to play one of someone else's games, this one being a cooperative puzzle solving game which I had actually played an earlier incarnation of at UK Games Expo.  There have been a few tweaks since I last saw the game, which I think have been for the better, and I really enjoyed this play.  It will be interesting to see how it develops.

Finally, and actually rather surprisingly to me, I got to test Giftmas with the Grimms with four players, and got some more useful insights.  It's nice to get a few playtests of a game close together as you start getting a real feel for the characteristics of the game.  And, of course, now I really need to finish writing a rulebook...

So, overall a really useful evening out and I'm sure I'll be back again if the dates fall right.  Apart from anything else, it's great to have more opportunities to chat with like-minded people.  I find it's great for morale.


Run To The Hills... Run For Your Life

I have made some progress.  After my recent post on the subject of a game focused on the struggles of peoples being invaded by a colonial power, I managed to throw together a prototype to try out some ideas and then build on that.  

The first go involved hand-written cards to try out a simple "artificial intelligence" to control the non-player colonial power.  Then when that looked OK, I turned to the trusty nanDECK to make a set of cards and plundered my Settlers of Catan box for terrain tiles and resource cards, and my general component stock for everything else.
Solo testing a Frankenproto.  The sharp-eyed may spot some components I stole from elsewhere.
Pro tip: for quick prototyping, having copies of Catan and Carcassonne lying around is really helpful.  I actually have a big stock of random meeples, cubes, other wooden shapes (in various colours), coins, dice and other tokens and the like, but those two games provide a really handy variety of components that can be insanely useful for throwing together a prototype to test a concept, and both games are relatively inexpensive, easily available, and good games that belong in just about any board game collection anyway.

Having had a couple of solo plays I discovered that (a) the game I had at that point seems to fundamentally be Not Completely Awful, which is probably the first major quality threshold to pass, and (b) I don't really have the imagination to play a game as multiple different players and actually do any useful testing.  Luckily, at this point I was able to persuade my friend, D, to have a go at playing the prototype instead of using that valuable time playing something that has already been published.  This test involved a few on-the-fly rules changes, and we didn't get through the whole thing, but it was enough to get some good insight into the state of the game.

I now have a handy list of points that I need to address, which largely breaks down to:

  • The colonial power as it stands is not aggressive enough.
  • I need to think out combat better, both between different players and between the players and the colonials.
  • I have players potentially collecting "antagonism" tokens when they annoy the colonial power, but I have not yet clearly defined how they affect game play.
  • Loads more bits that are currently not as important.

Overall, I have a really good feeling about this project.  It may develop slowly, but I definitely want to make some more progress here.


Being Invaded

I was listening to the always-interesting Perfect Information Podcast the other day (episode 25) and enjoying the deep, opinionated discussion (also loquacious and somewhat sweary) about some of those tricky subjects that get glossed over, ignored, whitewashed or romanticised in games.  Like slavery, or representation of indigenous peoples in colonial settings.  There are a lot of interesting thoughts there, but the one that really caught my attention was the assertion that while there are many games where players control colonial powers, there aren't any which treat the indigenous peoples as anything other than an obstacle to be overcome.  Okay, so there is Archipelago, which is a little more nuanced, but I think the point still stands.  The general assumption is that the colonial powers are the "good guys" at some level.

So why are all the games from the point of view of the colonisers and never about the colonised?
I gather it doesn't always go well for colonial powers.
Source: By Melton Prior (1845-1910). - The Illustrated London News May 14, 1881, vol. 78, p. 469. Scan provided by The Library of Congress., Public Domain
So this got me thinking.  Can I make a game where players actually control indigenous tribes in a land, getting on with whatever alliances and rivalries they have, and then an external colonising power arrives to steal their lunch?

This is still early stages, but I think I can go somewhere with this.  I'm writing this post largely to just put something into a more tangible form which might encourage me to actually turn it into something playable.

Just as some rough notes for now...

  • Tribes can have a number of possible strategies:
    • Fight the invaders.
    • Trade with the invaders.
    • Collaborate with the invaders.
    • Flee.
    • Aim to get rich.
    • Try to use the invasion to wipe out a rival tribe.
  • I'm not sure about overall objectives, but presumably being in a better position than other tribes at a certain point is important.
  • The invaders can be assumed to be almost unstoppable and with technologies that the tribes can't really compete with.
  • This could be cooperative, but I would like it to be competitive.  Maybe there could be different play modes.
  • Basing this on a historical period and location (colonisation of Africa, North America, South Pacific, etc) could offer some really great opportunities for a really interesting game.
That's about what I have right now, but I've had a chat with a game designer friend about this and some more ideas are starting to swirl around, so the next step is probably to put something basic on the table.


A Road of Oak

A few weeks ago, during a holiday in Ireland, we took a fascinating trip to the Corlea Trackway in County Longford.  This is an amazing piece of archaeology: a well-preserved section of a walkway constructed in the 2nd Century BC, that has been painstakingly preserved and put on display in a really nice visitors' centre.  The trackway is a road built from oak planks, designed to traverse sections of the bog and was both a marvelous feat of engineering and something of a failure, as it appears to have sunk into the bog under its own weight after only a few years.  If you are in the area, I reckon it is well worth a look as it is a pretty unique site with a fascinating history.

After this visit I couldn't help thinking about the box of lollipop sticks I have sitting in my stash of stuff at home, and pledged to myself that I would try making a game based on the trackway.

There is some (to say the least) debate about the actual purpose of this trackway.  It seems like overkill for simply allowing the locals easier access to or across the bogs (after all, it was built from oak, which was normally reserved for higher purposes).  The alignment and positioning of the route suggests that it might be part of a path connecting major royal sites in Leinster and Connaught.  Of course there are suggestions of a spiritual or religious purpose too.  I have proposed an alternative theory, based on extensive ludological research: it could have been a race track.

So my first attempt at a game had me marking lolly sticks with colours so that there were six colours (matching the six colours of meeples I have in the general stock), and on each side of the stick there were two different colours.  I then got the relevant meeples and asked Miss B to help try the game out.

Play basically involves pulling one of the sticks out of a bag and adding it to the growing trackway as a plank, and you get to choose which way up to put it.  You then move the meeples of the two colours showing on your new stick: one of them moves one space, the other moves two.  Each of us was secretly supporting two of the colours (randomly assigned) and we scored points for the race position we were in when the sticks ran out.

Miss B loved the game.  I have no illusions that this would entertain hobby gamers for more than the first couple of seconds, but I think impressing a 9-year-old, who is not afraid of being very critical of my games, is a good start.  I think we may have a viable core mechanic, but something far more is needed here.  In particular, I don't think that there is either enough room for strategy or enough chaos in the game; it may seem contradictory, but the game probably needs more of both.

So, some things that I may experiment with include:
  • Some sort of board which may provide some sort of restriction on how planks get played.
    • Possibly the board could grow and be made from cards or tiles.
  • Another class of sticks which may do something different to just moving two meeples.
  • Maybe "legs" to the race, so moving along stretches of trackway between islands.
  • Sections of the track might sink.
  • The different meeples could have special abilities.
  • Drafting sticks/planks instead of pulling them from the bag.


Still in London: Shifty Gifts

After the boardgame design talking day, I stayed in London for an extra night so I could attend this month's Sunday playtest meetup, though my commitments elsewhere meant that I was only able to stay for half of the afternoon and had to leave after the first two test slots.

The game I brought with me this time has a bit of a story.  You see, each November our family attends a big banquet event.  These banquets started off being medieval, but have mutated into a series of weirdly themed events; the last few have been based on, respectively, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Firefly/Serenity, and A Game of Thrones.  This year it is to be a soiree hosted by the Addams Family.  One of the traditions amongst some of the regular attendees is an exchange of small gifts, many of which are things made by the givers, and in the past, my wife, S, has exercised her crafting and knitting skills towards this.  This year, I have been thinking that there is something I make, so why don't I take a more active role in the gift making and giving process and make a small game, themed for the event?

Anyway, I've been bouncing assorted ideas around, on and off, for most of this year, but I have finally managed to put a playable prototype together (there have been other prototypes but they were dire), and so I took along a little 18 card microgame with the codename Secret Satan.
For prototype purposes I couldn't help but scribble together some simple illustrations.
I'm rather pleased with some of them.

The idea of the game is that there are six characters from a family of weirdos, and they are sharing out gifts.  There are six types of gifts (two of each -- stuff like puppies, cakes, and electrodes), and each character has one gift they would really like and one that they would like a bit less.  Play involves swapping cards around between players and revealing cards, which may then no longer be swapped.  At the end of a round, players score points according to whether their character has received their desired gifts.

So far, so boring.  The twists come from two sources.  One is that the gifts all have actions which take place when they are revealed, allowing additional swapping, revealing or un-revealing.  The other twist is that one of the types of gift is a bomb, and if you have a bomb at the end of the round you score nothing, except for one of the characters, who scores major points for having bombs, and revealing a bomb instantly ends the round.

We had a couple of plays of the game, one with five players and one with six, with a little tweaking of rules between plays, and I was delighted that the game was pretty fun to play.  We identified a couple of flaws, and it is clear that there is not much depth here, but a game with 18 cards which takes 5 minutes to play a round doesn't necessarily need much depth.  And yet, when we finished, there was some discussion about the various possible ways to bluff or misdirect the other players, so I felt really positive about this.

I actually need to finalise the game pretty quickly as I don't have all that much time to improve on it and actually get it printed, so I may have to settle for something less polished than I would like, but I'm pretty sure that, with a little more testing and revision, I'll have something that I am happy giving away.

Of course, I wasn't only playing my own game at this playtest session, and I got to play three other games in the time that I was able to stay: one was about creating (and foiling) evil and convoluted plans for world domination, one was about manipulating the political system to be in the winning faction when the incumbent dictator gets overthrown, and one was about smuggling dodgy goods past customs at an airport.  Three very different games which all show great potential and were very enjoyable to play as they were.


Talking and Improving Knowledge

I've just had a big weekend.  On Sunday it was another Playtest UK meetup, which I'll write about later, but Saturday featured something special: the snappily titled, "Convention to talk about Board Game Design and improve our knowledge", which ended up on Twitter with the hashtag #BGDevCon.

This event took place thanks to the efforts of Bez Shahriari and Andy Yiangou, building largely on the Playtest UK network.  I didn't do a head count, but there were between 25 and 30 attendees, with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills, but all with the common interest of tabletop game design and development.  While many of the attendees meet at other times for playtesting sessions, the rule for the day was that there was to be no playing of prototypes until after the end of the scheduled programme.  We would just be talking and listening for the day.
I seem to do weird things with my hands when giving a talk.
Thanks to Matthew Dunstan for the pic.
The doors opened, and for the first hour or so there was an opportunity for chat, grabbing a drink and a biscuit, and to work through a "getting to know you" puzzle that Bez had prepared, which was an amusing little diversion to get us to find out snippets of trivia about each other in order to crack a code.  With that done, we assembled in the main meeting room and got into a series of 5 minute microtalks given by about half of the attendees.

Subjects for the microtalks varied widely.  I gave a very quick (and somewhat gabbled) look at nanDECK, the software I find very useful for creating prototype cards, but other folks were talking about things like Kickstarter (from a couple of different perspectives), graphic design in games and the way it seems to be underused, and experiences with pitching games to publishers.  One of the attendees, Matt Evans from Creaking Shelves, has already written up a good summary of the microtalks, though he misses out his own talk, which was very helpful advice on getting reviewers to look at your game.

The microtalks were, for me, the highlight of an excellent day, giving a good idea of the breadth of interests within the room.  The pace was really kept going, and the lack of time for questions on the talks worked very much in the meeting's favour, as the session was followed by lunch, which quickly burst into discussion as groups formed up to discuss the various subjects introduced during the morning.  I really hope that future events, if they happen, also use a microtalk session like this.

In the afternoon there were longer talks, with associated discussions: again, a couple on various aspects of Kickstarter, one on the past, present and future of Playtest UK, and one on some of the design decisions that led to the creation of the Really Rather Good game Waggledance.

We then split into a couple (or was it three?) of groups for smaller discussions.  The group I was in was led by psychologist Christian Nica, who presented some of his thoughts on how we can use psychological principles to examine the development of boardgames and challenged us to think about how we design games in the context of these ideas.  We didn't have enough time to fully explore this subject, but there was some really interesting chat about interaction, trust, uncertainty, skills, and more.  I would have been more than happy with another hour in this group.

Finally, the day was rounded off with some thoughts on the subject of collaborative game design from Matthew Dunstan, himself a serial collaborator, and an opportunity for us to discuss some ideas within the group to see if there were any potential teams in the room.  I wouldn't be surprised if one or two collaborations emerge from that session.

So this isn't really the most insightful write-up of an event, but hopefully I have managed to communicate my enthusiasm for the event.  This was the first time that I have really been able to talk shop with so many game designers (and others) or in such depth, and it felt good.  It also felt great that, as a relative newbie, I was still welcomed as a peer and my input listened to with as much respect as the seasoned, published designers in attendance.  There is a real sense of community at events like this, and it is a real honour to be becoming part of it.  Hopefully there will be more of these -- if there are, I will do my very best to be there.


Four Houses on Trafalgar Square

I have, for many years, been quite forthright in my dislike of the classic board game Monopoly.  I am also aware that this is a majority view within the hobby games community, so my view is not exactly shaking the foundations of the establishment.  Another view I have often expressed is that I would far rather play a bad game in good company than vice versa.  So this weekend when I was at a games evening at the local civic hall and I was sitting with a group who fancied playing Monopoly, I figured I should hold myself to my own standards and play the game and try to enjoy it.
Image by William Warmy yoinked from flickr.

The last time I had played Monopoly must be something close to 20 years ago, and I have a feeling that the game was played in the Welsh language (which none of those around the table knew more than a small amount of) and involved quite a lot of alcohol.  Memories of that particular play are somewhat hazy.  Having now tried the game again, I feel I can, and should, think about what does and does not work for it.

Many criticisms of Monopoly centre on its "roll and move mechanic": you simply roll the dice and move accordingly.  I think that this is indeed a weakness, but it isn't as bad as I had remembered.  Sure, you are at the whim of the dice and have no control over where you end up (the only decision you make regarding movement is whether or not to buy your way out of Jail), but the focus of the game is not really movement around the board: this is effectively just a random event generator.

Thinking a little deeper about the dice rolling, it becomes clear that the interest actually comes when you are considering on which properties to build houses, as if you have a limited budget for development, you look at where your opponents are most likely to land on their next turn.  If you can put a house on a space that is seven away from another player, that would be a strong place to build.

That said, you cannot underestimate the level of frustration when you, for the second time in a row, land on Income Tax and have to pay back the £200 you have just collected for passing Go.

The other sources of randomness are the Chance and Community Chest cards.  These just tend to compound the chaos from the dice, and effectively mean that six squares have many different personalities that may help or hinder you on the whim of the fickle finger of fate.

As an aside, there is another old game (the Game of Nations, first published in the 1970's) that I played quite a bit as a teenager, which has no random elements other than a deck of event cards which you can easily avoid all game should you wish.  I was never entirely sure about these cards, but they were an interesting twist in that they only really made sense to use if you were doing poorly, as they gave you a chance to get some bonuses, at the risk of maybe having something nasty happen to you.  They were justified because they were an opportunity for losing players to have one last chance to keep in the game, while very rarely overturning skillful play.  Just saying.

Back to Monopoly, and we're at the point where I have to say that the real core of the game is pretty good.  Buying and collecting sets of properties, having the freedom to cut deals and trade with other players, and increasing the value of properties by building houses, all works well and is a compelling focus for a game.  And the oft-overlooked rule that if a player declines to buy a property then that property is sold to the highest bidder ensures that the pace of the game ramps up quickly and it is not long before most, if not all, of the properties have been purchased.


When it comes down to it, there is only really one strategy: buy whenever you can, and mortgage if you need to as it is better to own a heap of mortgaged properties than for those properties to belong to other players.  That's about it other than to ensure you get a monopoly on a set of properties as quickly as you can, then start building houses.  All else is just minor detail, like many houses is generally better than hotels as it prevents your opponents from accessing the limited pool of buildings.

So there aren't multiple paths to victory, just that one.  And this is not my biggest problem with the game.  The game is long, and can continue for ages after a winner is obvious (our group called an end when a couple of players needed to go home and I got to the point where I was all but unstoppable), and a player can be knocked out way before it finishes, and all that is seriously problematic, but again this is not what rubs me up the wrong way the most.

My biggest problem with Monopoly is that, if you want to win (and you do, right?), you need to ruthlessly bully the weakest player.  You need to force another player into a position where they are forced to give you all their properties.  It's not just about bullying, it is often about looking magnanimous while you do it, but basically you have to be mean to succeed.  In our game, other than myself there was one guy who was playing assertively, plus a couple of women who were a bit less certain.  The other guy hussled one of the women into making a trade against her interests, and she soon ended up having to mortgage most of the rest of her properties to pay him rent, leaving her nothing but hope.  Soon she landed on one of my heavily developed properties and I kindly agreed to take all her mortgaged properties in lieu of rent, leaving me controlling 2/3 of the board and having a huge stack of cash; game effectively over, thanks to my rival getting too greedy and me being able to pick over the bones.

I have nothing against games where play is ruthless and competitive, but this is a game where you need to bully and manipulate the weakest.  Either that or the game goes on for many hours as you all slowly chug along accumulating stuff -- particularly if you are using that terrible Free Parking house rule.  If you are playing in an environment where everyone is equally aggressive in play style and have the same desire to win, that is not necessarily a problem, but in a social gaming setting this seems like the very opposite of fun.  Even as the de facto winner of the game I gained no pleasure from it, knowing that my choices were either to grind the weak into the dust, effectively concede to the other competitive player, or allow the game to run inconclusively into the middle of next week.  I felt like a total shit for taking the opportunities I did, but I felt like the alternatives were no better.

I think that in future, if a similar situation occurs, I will just have to try a load harder to offer alternatives in the form of different games to play.  Maybe it's just me being selfish, but I don't want that sort of experience again.  Mind you, the experience has given me a nice little learning opportunity, so it's not all bad.


My name is Rob and I love playtesting

So here is something new to the blog, though I have been sitting on it since May.  I took another trip to London on Sunday for a Playtest UK meetup (no problems with trains this time, and the bits of the underground I used were running fine) and took along a little game that I call "My Name Is...".  This is something that has only been played once before, during an evening at UK Games Expo, and showed some promise there, but I just haven't really got round to doing more work on.  But this weekend I fancied trying something fresh at the meetup.

The idea is based on the sort of icebreaking activity that you might have come across on training courses, large meetings, theatre workshops, or any number of other places, where everyone is meant to introduce themselves along with a little tidbit of information. Then conversation occurs where everyone is meant to remember the names and information they have been given.

My name is Rob and I design board and card games as a hobby.
Cards for this game happen to be the simplest I've made yet.

In order to turn this into a game I made a deck of cards with a number of subjects, like dogs, cats, movies, and vegetables.  Then each card had one of these subjects along with an attitude, "love" or "hate".  Game play is then to pull a card, introduce yourself by name, and state your opinion as defined by this card.  The card gets added to a growing stack in front of you, and play passes to the left.

What actually makes this a challenge is that you need to state when you have an opinion on a subject that another player has already declared on: "My name is Ermintrude and I love comics, unlike my friend Zebedee, who hates them."  You can challenge other players if you think they have missed something or made a mistake, and if you mess up you take an "oops!" token, the aim being to have the fewest tokens at the end of the game.

Oh, and to mess with heads a little more, there are "I've changed my mind" cards, which reverse the opinion on all the other cards in your stack.  Hilarity ensues.

There are a few more details, but not much, and the couple of test games I have now done resulted in much laughter as well as very furrowed brows, which is all pretty much what I was hoping for.  The group of other fellow designers at the meetup, however, after giving me a general thumbs up, were kind enough to keep me engaged for a good little while with great observations and suggestions.

One of the key points was a suggestion that, from a psychological (and marketing) point of view, it might be better to find a way to have players requiring high scores to win the game rather than low.  Plenty of good games award victory to the player with the lowest score, but it still seems more natural to aim to get more.  We discussed assorted ways of doing this, but as is often the case, it required sleeping on the matter to come up with a plan that I liked.  In the game as it has been so far, a penalised player discards her stack of cards, thus simplifying the game state a bit.  Well, I thought, how about if the discarded cards were given to another player to add to their score pile?  This has the attraction of reducing the components required for the game, as counters would no longer be needed.  However, I need to figure out if the score gained in this way is one point per pile of cards, or one point per card; at least in this case I can run playtests, record both scores, and see which seems to work the best.

Another very interesting thought was that some of the subjects on the cards go in pairs which occasionally get confused.  So Ermintrude declares an opinion on dogs, and remembers that Zebedee likes some sort of mammal, but can't remember whether it was dogs or cats.  I was encouraged to have more pairs like this.

A theme of discussion throughout the afternoon was varying levels of difficulty of play, and this thread came up in most of the groups I was involved in.  For my game, it was observed that if the "I've changed my mind" cards were taken out, the game should be a lot easier, so possibly more friendly to families, beginners, or drunk people.  It's always nice to have simple options like this.

Other games tested during the day were a few different variants on a colour-based card deck, a game of mining gems from asteroids, and a competitive deduction game of hunting for an alien.  All very enjoyable, and I missed out on some great looking other games as well.


A game on the table is worth two (hundred?) in the mind

Over the last couple of years I have increasingly been giving advice to game designers who are even newer to the craft than I am that they should stop thinking about and planning their first game and make a minimally functional prototype that allows them to try out some small part of the game which can then be built on.  It is probably the biggest lesson that I have learnt and it has stood me in good stead.  But I still get caught in the trap myself.

Take the "TheoDemocracy" game I posted about a couple of times in May.  You might remember that this is intended to be a cooperative game with the feature that players are forced into attacking each other by external forces. I was spouting all sorts of ideas and trying to refine them and make a plan on how to build a worthwhile prototype.  I even started work on cards and player boards, but was struggling a bit of getting the full picture together.  Then I had to turn my attention to preparations for, and the aftermath of, UK Games Expo, and I have only just managed to get the brain cells back in line to work on this particular project.

WHAT WAS I THINKING?!  I was going against all the good practice I have learnt, and spent more effort planning and talking than actually doing.  To be clear, planning and talking is also really useful, but not as much as actually making a physical thing that can be played with.  Time to correct that mistake.

So I stripped most of the ideas away and pulled out my trusty piles of filing cards, flashcards, and random tokens and counters, and got to work.
Not much to look at, but that's not the point.

Within minutes I had three player boards, greatly simplified from previous plans, and a pile of 10 cards with simple objectives on them like "control 3 provinces" and "build a temple".  I had given up (for now) on the whole multi-purpose cards idea, and was simply turning up an objective for each player on each turn and seeing if they can fulfill the requirement; if a player fails, they gain an "unrest" token.  I basically made the rest up as I went along.

And, hurrah! This all basically worked for a dull and unchallenging game.  I am actually extremely happy with how that went for the couple of rounds I played solo.  What I can now do is add a few more objectives, add necessary economy/building/military rules to support these, and figure out a way to give a little more control to the players.  One idea for that latter requirement might be to deal everyone a hand of cards and you each get to choose one or more cards to send to each of the other players and yourself, and possibly discard a card or two that will come back later in the game; then everyone gets to deal with the cards that they have acquired in this way.  Just a thought.

So that is where I am now: the basics of an engine, with a few features that mostly work, and actually something that I can start building on.  Let the iteration commence.


Exploration of Multi-Function Cards -- Oh, and Some Settling

The game known as Explore and Settle (or Gamey McGameface, as I facetiously touted it online) has had its third visit to a London playtest meetup, and in a very different form to previous times.

After a load of thrashing ideas around and some solo playtesting (sometimes it's worth just playing against myself to see how things pan out), the game got a lot of components removed and a very different play dynamic added, and I was looking forward to seeing how it worked with real people.

So now I have got rid of gold, resource tokens and the like, and rolled loads of functions into a deck of cards.  Essentially, the terrain cards still have a terrain tile as their main part, and they still have a built-in indicator of resource production, but now they also each have a pair of actions that the card can be used for, including builds and settlement movements.  Oh, and the cards can also be discarded (or passed to other players) as payment, so the cards act as currency as well.  Each turn you draw some cards, and cities allow you to draw additional cards.

The big questions were, at this point, are the choices afforded by these new, multi-function cards interesting, does the game flow OK in this form, and do the options just make everything grind to a halt?
Our game at its end, with the blue player having constructed his third monument.
Note the hole in the middle, where there was a void where cards could not be played.
We had a three-player game, with me giving the caveat that I was wanting to look at overall game play and flow, and noting that the balance of costs, victory points, and so on, was likely to be horribly wrong at this stage.  That latter prediction did, indeed, turn out to be correct, but what else did we learn?...

It turns out, not surprisingly, that there is a fairly heavy cognitive load when figuring out what you can do on each turn.  Figuring out if you have enough cards to, say, build a monument can take some working through, and this can make for some periods of staring at cards and doing mental gymnastics to solve the puzzle.  None of it is actually too difficult, but it does take some concentration, and this is all something that could attract some players but put others off completely.  I will need to decide if this is something I am happy with in the design, or if I can simplify and smooth the play out.

My testers also had some difficulty just getting their heads around how the game works, with the combination of terrain, production, actions, and cards-as-currency, and there was a comment that some aspects (particularly the way cards are used to pay for certain things) are somewhat unituitive.  This is a potential problem, but given the way that the latter half of the play through went (pretty smoothly overall), I think it might just be that I need to improve the presentation of the game with better iconography, player aids, and rules explanations.

While cities and monuments were build all over the place, only one production location was built, which surprised me a little, but it was felt that there wasn't really any incentive to undertake these builds, partly as it was too easy for other players to move settlements in and poach access to these facilities.

On balance, though, this was a very positive test.  I think the overall shape of the game is now one I like, and with some more (or a lot more) attention to costs and benefits of things, I think I can make progress here.

This is definitely the heaviest game I have got to this stage of development, although it is probably still just a middleweight in the grand scheme of things.  I did get one interesting suggestion, though, which was to strip the game back down to a very basic level (need to decide what that is first!) and see if the gameplay is still okay.  While I am still wanting to work on a meatier game than others I have developed over the last year or so, this is probably a very worthwhile exercise to learn more about what I am doing here, and it may well help me find the elements that need focussing on.

Apart from testing this game, I of course played games designed by other people.  This time we had a short and chaotic game of queue manipulation, a game of storytelling with a stack of words you have to use (in order) in your story, and a game about building a telegraph network in mid-nineteenth century America.  As always some very interesting (and varied) stuff with great potential.


Has This Idea Been Done Before?

Every week on Board Game Geek there are threads started in the game design forums which basically say, "I have an idea for a game and want to know if it has been done before."  Essentially, they don't want to waste their time developing a game that is too similar to something that is already out there, and want to add something new and original to the market.

Totally understandable.

But pointless.
Shia has the idea.  Sorry, I don't know who made this image,
but Google tells me it is labelled for reuse.
Weird how hard it is to source things sometimes.

These threads usually result in a few similar seeming games (there really is nothing new), to which the original poster responds by saying one or more of:
  • "I've never heard of them" -- indicating a lack of familiarity with the hobby as a whole; this isn't necessarily a problem as everyone starts somewhere, and you don't need to know everything about games to be able to create a good game (thankfully).
  • "No, those games are different to my idea because..." -- indicating that the poster didn't do a good job of explaining his idea; and this is probably largely because it is just an idea and not developed into anything tangible. The ensuing discussion is sometimes interesting.
  • "Oh well, back to the drawing board" -- suggesting that this person will never finish a game, as he is too worried about doing something unique to actually get anywhere.
Game design is a skill that can be learned and developed, like any creative skill.  I am still new and inexperienced, but over the last couple of years of projects of varying sizes, including many failures and blind alleys, I have got better at it.  Getting better at game design includes being able to find different angles to take and options to explore.  I am not saying that I am a very innovative designer, but I am finding that just getting on with designs I often find at least something in each design that makes it stand out from otherwise similar games.

Which brings me to the advice that most of these threads end up with: it doesn't matter if your idea is not the most original in the world, or even if it has been done a hundred times already.  If you are asking the question, then clearly the idea is one which interests you, so just run with it and see where it takes you.  If you end up with a decent game, chances are it will be sufficiently different to other games on the market to justify its place in the world, and if it sucks and you abandon it, you should have learnt a heap along the way.  Plus, by the time you are moving on you will probably be getting more ideas to try out.

Just do it!  Somebody should make that into their company motto.


Boogying at Expo Again

So, three spells of playtesting Boogie Knights at UK Games Expo and getting 19 strangers to play across five games has resulted in quite a lot of feedback and notes that I took at the time.
One of the 5-player games at Expo, running at Saturday lunchtime. Fun to watch.

Firstly, statistics.  I wasn't rigorously checking the play times, but we do seem to be fairly steady at around 20 minutes (plus or minus about 4), regardless of how many players we have, which is pleasing.  I recorded the number of reshuffles, and the end game scores for each game, noting the scores in player order (so first player first):

# playersScoresReshuffles
310, 8, 51
510, 8, 8, 4, 52
34, 10, 81
46, 6, 7, 101
58, 9, 10, 7, 33

In most cases, there seems to be an issue where one or two players lag behind the leaders by quite a large margin.  This is a little concerning to me, though there isn't yet enough data to see if this is really a thing.  I discussed this with some of the players and, in that discussion at least, it was felt that this is probably not a big deal and might actually be an issue due to inexperienced players making basic mistakes (like not being assertive enough).  I think I need to check this, and can do so by getting some testers to play a few times and see how the score distributions change as they gain experience.

My general observations in all the games were that the game generates a fair bit of laughter and the quick change and dirty tricks rules were very popular and used extensively, and often effectively.  I think I may have got them about right now.

From the feedback, both written and spoken, most people seem to like the game for what it is, but there were a few players who felt that the game needs some extra options or different actions to increase the variety of play. One player suggested that there could be a third area for competition aside from combat and disco.

I'm a bit cagey about adding more in, as I think the game seems to be working well at present, but I think perhaps I can think of some cards to add for an advanced game in case people want a bit more.  It would be nice to have some sort of expansion module that could be included, as it might spread the appeal, but perhaps crowbarring that sort of thing in might be working against what the game wants to be.  I'm sure it can be done though and I will get to that eventually.

I did actually make a very minor change to the rules based on feedback on Saturday (dirty tricks can now swap items with the armoury row as well as with other players), and this change appears to be for the better, so thanks to the guy who suggested that.

Other feedback included a suggestion that a soundtrack is needed for the game; a comment that the non-medieval elements of the game don't seem to fit in as well (this might be due to my dodgy art!); having too many challenges turn up too early can be a problem; and final artwork will be key to the game's appeal.

All in all, I owe a huge thank you to everyone who played over the weekend.  I'm starting to get some confidence that I'm now moving in the right direction, and that I probably just need to get the game played as much as possible and try to shake out any long-term trends to see what needs working on next.  Part of this is investigating what happens with experienced players, as discussed earlier.  And I think it might be time for me to start pushing a bit harder to get some blind tests done...


Return to the Expo

So UK Games Expo, in its new and shiny home of the enormous NEC Hall 1 (as well as the Hilton that it has been in for the last few years!) has been and gone, and I attended for all three days, a fair bit of which was spent in the Playtest Zone (organised by the awesome Rob Harris of Playtest UK), with time divided between running games of Boogie Knights, playing other folks' prototypes, and helping to draw innocent victims in to the tables.

Proof that I actually had the attention of some players, despite wearing an obnoxious shirt.
Thanks to Namgyal Chatral for the pic.

I had two sessions of testing Boogie Knights, and during each session I managed to get two plays in, and it was pleasingly easy to fill the tables, though that was largely down to the efforts of the volunteers roping in passers-by.  In total that made for 17 people who hadn't played the game before, most of whom gave helpful feedback (mostly very positive, but some interesting points raised), and I even got an extra play that I joined in back at the hotel on Saturday evening with a couple I met, so this has extended the number of people who have played the game quite significantly.

I'll write another post to discuss the feedback I got in a couple of days or so.

Aside from that I got to play some really interesting prototypes, including one that has a The Resistance sort of vibe but is based on the prisoner's dilemma and ultimately has you choosing your own side, and a clever cooperative game about moving animals around fields.  Even volunteering at the zone for a while and wearing the Red Shirt (which makes us far more likely to suffer an unpleasant fate than the yellow-shirted Expo volunteers) was really rewarding, and I'll try to spend more time helping out next year.

Both at the Playtest Zone and elsewhere I enjoyed meeting people (several who I had previously met online) and making new friends and contacts.  Highlights included getting high-5's from numerous people; learning to play Guilds of London from the designer; Tony Boydell, and then listening to Gil Hova deconstructing it afterwards; a brief chat with Paul and Pip from Shut Up and Sit Down; cramming into the packed open gaming halls on Friday night and then having a really quiet little gaming session at the hotel bar on Saturday; discovering that the little coffee stall in Hall 1 near the Playtest Zone made damn fine coffee; and just getting to talk game design with heaps of interesting and interesting people.


Imminent Expo

Lately most of the game design portion of my brain has been focussed on the forthcoming UK Games Expo, which takes place at the Birmingham NEC between 3rd and the 5th of June, and preparing for this has been one reason I have temporarily dropped a few projects.  I will be attending the show for all three days for the first time, and am looking forward to having extra time to be playing, exploring, talking and so on.

So what will I be up to?  Well, the focus for me this year is on playtesting.  I have two 90 minute slots booked in the Playtest Zone, where I will have some table space for a few games of Boogie Knights.  The idea is that Boogie Knights seems to have reached a fairly stable form and I would now like to see a heap more plays before making more changes.  The game probably does need more tweaks, but first I would like some more data, especially from people who haven't yet played the game.

So, if you would like to come and say hello and try out Boogie Knights, I will be running games between 11:30 and 13:00 on Saturday, and 10:00 to 11:30 on Sunday.

I will also probably be hanging around the Playtest Zone at various other parts of the weekend, and have volunteered to help out in (and wearing one of those natty red t-shirts, I think) on Friday afternoon.

So that's my main bookings, but I am hoping to also get along to the Wyvern's Lair session on Saturday afternoon.  As you may remember, I submitted Boogie Knight for this event, but unfortunately didn't make the cut for the final twelve entrants.  While this is a little disappointing, it does mean that I can relax a little more for the weekend and just enjoy myself without stressing about my pitch.  It will be nice to get along and just watch and learn from other people's experiences this time, and maybe I'll give it another go next year.

I'm not sure what I will be up to in the evenings.  Last year I stayed over for Saturday night and had a great time making use of one of the open gaming areas for the evening, so I'll probably do something like that, though there has been talk about a load of prototype play in the evenings too, so that would be great as well.  I'll be taking a couple more games along, just in case the opportunity arises.

Then on Sunday, after my second playtesting slot, I am expecting the family to join me for the last day of the expo.  I know Miss B wants to play in a couple of the roleplaying games for kids, so I'll get her booked in for them, but apart from that we'll just have to see how it goes.


Exploration and Monumentalisation

Sunday saw me having another opportunity to go to London for an afternoon of playtesting.  Unfortunately this session was a little truncated due to the pub being booked for a private function for the evening, but thanks to a slightly earlier start than usual and some careful wrangling of game designers, we still managed to get three 90 minute sessions.

This time I was up in the first slot, which was a little disappointing in that I missed out on a couple of games I really wanted to try, but that's always the problem: so many games and only so much time to play them.  This meetup was a little lighter on people than previous ones, so I ended up joining in for a three-player game of Explore and Settle -- though a fourth arrived half way through, too late to join in, but he watched and was able to contribute feedback at the end.
Slightly blurry picture, but then so was the game itself.
My latest iteration of the game had a few elements added in an attempt to fill out the game and address some of the issues raised last time.  I had added more variety in the monuments that could be built, introduced objective cards which provide victory points for various things (each player is dealt two to start), made some actions more costly in terms of gold, and changed the resource supply mechanism, and this last deserves a paragraph of its own.

Previously you were able to use resources if you could trace a path of no more than three cards back to a location that is producing that resource.  This seemed OK, but we weren't sure about keeping track of where everything was coming from, so you couldn't just use resources from the same location repeatedly.  This time round I went for a different approach.  Each time you added a card to the map, the card you added would trigger production in some locations -- you may see resource icons in circles, in the corner of the cards in the picture above; these are the triggers.  To stop things getting too messy, I figured that resources were only produced in locations that didn't already have unused resource markers there; so a maximum of one resource per card.  I also added "trade goods", effectively a wild card good that you could buy with gold from cities by the sea, and these were produced whenever a sea card was played.

Our three-player game wasn't disastrous as a game, but it wasn't a lot of fun.  As a playtest, though it was pretty good, as we found several issues that were a problem and were able to talk through several ideas that may allow me to make things better.  Thanks to Dan, Dave and (later) Mike for providing really valuable feedback here.  Some of the major points discussed were...

  • We got a bit resource starved for one of the resources in the early part of the game, which made things rather frustrating for a while. There was acceptance that there are sometimes plays like this, and it's not necessarily a huge deal, but I feel that I should try to avoid creating a game where the first few turns are full of frustration.
  • One possible way to ease the early game is to make the start cards special ones that always produce and never lose their production. Possibly even make the start cards coastal.  Thematically this could be a good decision for a game with an exploration element.
  • The way resources were being produced, there is a real incentive to do your best to use everything up on your turn, as anything you leave is an advantage to someone else.  Later in the game most resources were fairly plentiful, so this became less of a thing, but it seems a bit of a design smell.
  • Some of the choices I made about how money moves around were unintuitive, largely because it relied people to remember when they pay other players and when they pay the bank.  Need to think about this.
  • There was a feeling that monuments were too hard to build, though later on, with money and resources being more available this eased, so I think this may not be a problem: when it becomes easier to build monuments, that is the end game approaching.
  • The objectives look very unbalanced and a couple of them are far worse than the others.  This is something that I suspected, and will certainly pay more attention to it for future versions, as I like the idea of keeping them in.  Another thing to think about, however, is the balance of where points come from because it would be nice for there to be multiple paths to victory.
  • Given that the resource production system just didn't seem right we discussed a few possible options, including going back to my previous way of doing things.  One suggestion that I very much liked was that you use your settlements to activate locations on the cards where they are sitting, so you can effectively generate one resource somewhere for each settlement you have.  This potentially means that there is an incentive to have more than one settlement on a card.  It also suggests that they aren't settlements, but clans or something.
  • Finally, we had a lot of discussion about whether it is allowed to partly cover a production tab on a card.  I've always said not, but thinking about it, I could rearrange the design of the cards so that production is indicated by icons in the corners  rather than the centre of the tabs.  That way, one tab could neatly cover over one of those icons, but not the other.  This has all sorts of implications that I am thinking about.
So while my ego took a knock or two here, the outcome of this play was amazingly helpful and leaves me with a lot to work on.  Now I just need to make some changes and get a playable set again and get it in front of people soon.  I've set myself a target of having a playable set for UK Games Expo at the start of June; I won't be running an "official" playtest of it there, but hopefully there will be some opportunities in the evenings.

But I do seriously need to come up with a new name for the game.  Any suggestions would be appreciated so that I don't end up resorting to Gamey McGameface.

The couple of other games I played were a deckbuilding game set in space, with similarities to the excellent Star Realms but including the development of planets and colonies, plus some interesting other mechanisms, and a true analogue game of motor racing, where you move your car using measurements on a ruler and have to plan acceleration and braking by estimating distances on the race track. And, of course, there were some great sounding games that I missed out on too.


Without God or Democracy There Is Just This...

Back to the development of this cooperative game set in a mythical version of classical Greece, and I've been discussing ideas for the game with a few people on BGDF and working on the basics for an initial prototype.  Having got through some far-too-complicated-or-fiddly ideas, I have got to a basic engine to build the game from.  The real guts of the game should be dealing with conflicting and sometimes painful demands from the gods and the people, but to make that work there needs to be some form of an economy.

What I have settled on is there being seven different commodities that can be produced: food, wine, cloth, wood, stone, bronze and silver.  I'm not sure what they will all be used for, but they seem a reasonable representation of different things that might be important in a setting like this.  I have discarded the idea of using either counters or score tracks to tally the amount of each commodity you have, and just have a load of locations that can produce things, and each of them either has things you can use or they don't.  A game like this could easily become a spreadsheet control exercise, so I am choosing to make it hand-wavey, with simple levels of "yes, we have access to wood" rather than "we have 17 units of wood".  (I note that this isn't entirely dissimilar to my approach in "Explore and Settle" -- am I developing a personal style here?)

Anyway, explaining this with words is probably harder than showing you a picture.  So here is my first pass at a player board to track stuff.  Actually, that is a lie, it is about my fourth pass.  Here it is...

It's not flashy because it's an early prototype. Hopefully it's usable.
So what you see above is your city state.  There is your city itself and two provincial regions nearby.  Within these regions are squares representing locations that can produce the various commodities. At the start of each player's turn, a production card is flipped over, naming two commodities that can be produced, and each player may choose one of those commodities and place a marker on each location they control that produces that commodity and doesn't already have a marker.  Channeling a little bit of Catan there -- opportunities happen on everyone's turn, though I have a minor concern that as there is a decision to make for everyone, that may slow the game down in some groups, but that is something to discover with playtesting.

Controlling a location? Well, you control a location if it is in a region on your board and nobody else has an army parked in that region, or you control a location on someone else's board if you, and only you, have an army in the region.

Which brings us to armies.  At the moment, I am thinking of a very simple mechanism where if, at any point, there are more armies of one player in a region than all other armies, then the minority armies are destroyed; anything else results in a stalemate.  This basically means that there can be situations where if you have one army controlling one of my provinces, and I need to reclaim it to use the resources, I have a choice of putting one army in there so you can withdraw or disband your army on your next turn, or I send in multiple armies to just wipe you out and clear the region quickly.

Back to those commodities.  Basically you can spend them to buy or do things.  So far I see bronze being used for armies, wood for ships (I actually typed wood for sheep there before correcting!), stone for temples, food for either maintaining or growing your population (will get into that another time), silver for upkeep of units (and probably to build anything).  I'm not sure if wine or cloth will be used for anything; if they aren't useful, I'll drop them.  I have an idea for trading with overseas powers, but that can wait for now.  When you use a commodity, you just remove a matching marker from a location.

That's enough for now.  I need to keep working on making this thing rather than just writing about it.  Next up: those demand cards to make things both difficult and interesting...


24 Hours of Wet Treasures

The last time I took part in the BGG 24 hour game design contest was in December of last year, and I am trying to progress existing designs as my focus this year (please ignore the recent discussion about that co-op game!), but sometimes I can't help myself.  The 24 hour contests are such a good exercise, and such a great buzz when they work out well, that I plan to keep doing them every now and then.

Just as a reminder, the contest is structured so that each month the organiser, Kai, gives a requirement, which is often interpreted as a theme, but really is just something that has to be included in the game in some way.  Then participants have to find a time during the month to work on their game, starting by announcing their participation on the contest thread, and finishing by posting up to two files, one for the rules and one for any print and play components that are required, within 24 hours of their initial post.  This isn't policed: it is certainly possible to cheat, but there is no incentive to do so as the whole thing is more as a personal challenge, and the community around the contest is a fairly small and very supportive one, so people are more likely to disqualify themselves than try to bend the rules.

The requirement for April was 'Atlantis'.  While some people were thinking of the Space Shuttle and other stuff, I went for a more literal interpretation and decided to create a push-your-luck game about "rescuing" treasured from the mythical city as it sinks beneath the waves.
Four players versus the rising sea levels...
Well, OK, so all four were me, but nobody else was available at the time.

The plan was to have the general shape of the game being for each player to turn over a card from a deck and add it to a line, and decide whether to stay in the round or not, putting their personal marker onto the latest card if they are dropping out.  If a certain number of cards with "sea" on them are turned up, then anyone still in the round misses out, and those who retired get to draft the cards that have been set out, though only having access to the ones between the start of the line and the location of their marker.  The draft is in order of when the markers are placed, so if you drop out early you get the first pick, but you are likely to be able to take the fewest cards.

Of these cards you are collecting, most of them are treasure cards and collecting sets of treasure scores points in different ways.  Some of the cards are sea monsters, and collecting a pair of them forces you to discard one of your treasures.  There are sea cards, of course, and boats, which you can discard to allow you to put your marker onto a sea card.

A short time fiddling around with nanDECK set up some usable cards, with the help of a bunch of images grabbed from game-icons.net, which remains my favourite source of simple images, even if they don't quite have something for every occasion.  Then some solo playtests to try a few possible variations of the rules and I settled on something that seemed to work OK, so I started writing up the rules.

After picking Miss B up for school, she was happy to help me out with a playtest and gave me a definite thumbs up for the design ("better than Boogie Knights" she said, though she isn't a fan of that after playing it quite a few times early on) so I finalised the rules and submitted my entry with only a day of the month left to go.

I'm reasonably happy with this game but, of course, a game created in 24 hours will never be perfect.  It needs a heap of playtesting to shake out whatever problems it has, and I already have one significant change I would like to try, which is to give everyone a limited number of tokens that they can use, so effectively everyone can only participate in a limited number of rounds, and that might add some extra weight to the decisions. Only playtesting will show if that works how I think it might.  I think I may keep this game in my set of reasonably active games, at least for the time being, so we'll see how things go.

Update: the voting list is here if you would like to see all the entries.



Continued thoughts on the potential cooperative game where you are forced to attack the other players...

It occurred to me that a great potential setting for a game like this could be a fantasy version of ancient Greece.  If I mashed together the gods and heroes from the mythical era with rival city states and Athenian-style democracy from the classical period, this could be a great starting point.
No wonder they are fighting, it looks really crowded in there.
Picture yoinked from wikimedia.org and is allegedly in the public domain.

The main thrust of the game is now that each player controls one of the city states and each turn you have to balance the will of the gods with the will of the people, and woe betide anyone who ignores them both.  Both of those demanding factions are fickle and capricious, so getting a random deal of cards (showing a demand from one or both of gods or people) each round should model that pretty well.  We can have a measure of divine anger and civil unrest for each player, and if those get too high, the game is lost, and those measures can also impact how other things work out.

I'm not yet sure how to win the game at this point.  It could simply be a matter of surviving a certain amount of time without the balance breaking down, but I think there needs to be more of an interesting finale to build towards.  I think this can be developed later -- knowing that the basic play of the game works is probably more important -- but I need to keep it in mind and come up with something before too long, even if that changes later.

Of course, this could all be so much easier if it was a competitive game, but that is not the challenge, and would probably end up with something rather more vanilla.

I want this game to have a board, rather than being just a card game, largely so we can see armies moving around on a map.  This might just get abstracted to a circle where you attack and defend left and right.  In fact that is probably enough for a first iteration, and if more scope for manoeuvre is found to be required, then so be it.  So that means that some of the actions available will boil down to deploying troops either to your left or your right, and using them to attack or defend.  Part of  the game would therefore end up being to fight battles and win glory, but not being too effective at it.

That would make for quite a dull game, so there needs to be more going on out there.  Building temples to the gods would probably be good. Something to do with games (of the Olympic variety), maybe.  Also economic elements, including production of goods domestically and trade, both with the other players and with off-board non-player powers.  To get with the mythical element, doing things like launching a thousand ships to attack Troy would be cool too.

As I write, I am starting to put together a very basic prototype to try the principles out, using a few of the ideas I have mentioned above.  Next time I write on this subject, I will relate how that went.

Before that happens, though, I am feeling a bit of a 24 hour challenge buzz...


Cooperating With Your Enemies

So I was having a discussion on Facebook, which started about whether there are any cooperative boardgames that are best with, or specifically designed for, three players.  This quickly developed into a bit of a design brainstorm about a possible game that could fit that bill given that people were suggesting games that were good with three, but nobody seemed to find one that was best with that count.   Huge thanks to Tim Cox and Koen Hendrix for throwing around some really interesting ideas and making this into a really fun evening's diversion.

One of the participants suggested Dune as a setting, and this got me thinking about how to create a true cooperative game, with no traitor mechanic or anything like that, but based in a universe where everyone is trying all manner of underhand tricks, including, but not limited to, assassination and nukes.  Once we got that far, I had fallen down a rabbit hole and I found there were ideas bouncing around that wouldn't let go.
A dune. Not sure those guys have properly set up stillsuits.
Pic yoinked from pexels.com

I don't feel inclined to create a game that relies heavily on an IP, but I'll use Dune as an example for what I am thinking about right now...  (I'll confess here that it is a long time since I have read any of the Dune books -- and I did lose the will to live before getting through the entire series -- so my thoughts here are based mostly on incomplete memories of the first book and subsequent screen adaptations.)

So, regardless of player number (it would be nice to hit that magical three, but this discussion is on to something else now), there needs to be a common goal which, if achieved, means that everyone wins.  In Dune terms, let's say that there needs to be a spice harvest to bring in enough spice, and at that point no single house must be in control of Arrakis. We will basically assume that, for the overall good of everyone, a stand-off is what is most desirable, even if the noble members of the various houses don't actually see it that way.

There also needs to be ways to lose.  As a first pass, lets say that if any house gets all their influence completely removed from Arrakis, that sufficiently destabilises things to end the game, as does one house becoming sufficiently powerful.

So if everyone wants stability to be maintained, surely that is easy.  And isn't it unthematic to think that there is any possible universe where a Harkonnen won't stick a knife into an Atreides back given a reasonable opportunity?

Yes, true.  So we will force this.

My thinking at the moment is that each round, every player is forced to make at least one move that is nasty and obnoxious and would work against the interests of maintaining a balance.  You know, I invest in this city, harvest some spice, negotiate with the Guild, and assassinate one of your leaders; yeah, sorry, I didn't have much choice there.

How can we make that happen? Well, maybe the game is card driven and you need to play all the cards in your hand each round.  Each card has a nice, positive effect that nudges the game towards victory, and also something unpleasant that screws everyone in general but one player in particular; then you have to decide which of your cards (or maybe more than one) you play for its bad effect.  So there may be some effects that are absolutely essential to provide any chance of winning, but that means that you have to deploy the house atomics against the last player who looked at you funny.

Combine that with some external challenges that need to be overcome and we may have a game here.  I'm on it and will see if I can get a basic prototype playable soon -- though I probably won't be using the Dune setting.  I have an idea for an alternate setting, which then suggests a load of developments.  I'll start building that and will post about it really soon.

To be continued...