Explore and Make Cards

Moving back to a game that has been getting little love in recent months, the one that I have currently codenamed Explore and Settle, I have decided to actually set up the cards on the computer, so I can quickly make whatever cards I want in whatever quantities, and start moving towards a bigger and better prototype than I had before. And I figured I might as well share how I do this, in case anyone is interested.

So, if you remember, the basic idea is that we have playing cards divided up into a square section, showing a terrain type (and possibly other features, though I'm not worrying about that right now) and the remaining part of the card is a tab which indicates a resource production type, which can end up being obscured by another card.
...a bit like this.

My tool of choice for this sort of job is a program called nanDECK, which provides a simple programming language designed to allow you to create game cards (or, potentially, other printed components).  A short script can combine with a data file (which can be a spreadsheet or a comma-separated-values file, which is what I usually use) to provide a way to easily (once you have learnt the basics) produce sheets of print-and-play cards.  The program also has a visual editor, but  I have never used it as it is not how my brain works best, so cannot comment on how effective it is.

As an aside, nanDECK is designed to run on Windows, but my PC runs a Linux operating system, which is inconvenient in this case. Fortunately we have the Wine software available; this is basically something that allows a lot of Windows software to run on Linux, and it is very handy.  Unfortunately it is often more complicated than just installing and running and, in the case of nanDECK, I had to spend a little while chasing down libraries from the Internet to make everything work.  It's all good now, and it works fine, though I'm afraid I can't go into how I did this, as it was quite a while back.

Anyway, a short bit of nanDECK code like this...


[VersionString]="Version 0.0"



...defines the size and shape of the card as well as the paper that I plan to print on, and lays down some background shapes.  Note that I also always put a version number on the bottom of the cards, which helps me keep my revisions in order, and also the "AllCards" bit is just a handy label for all the cards in my set, later on I will change it to something like [AllCards]="1-54" to define a 54 card deck.  That little script allows me to produce a basic template for the cards which comes out like this...

The intent is to stick a terrain image in the big square at the top, and put a resource icon in the outlined space near the bottom.  It's not the last word in graphic design, but the intent is simply to make something neat and presentable.

At the moment I am using five types of terrain for the game: grassland, forest, hills, mountains and sea.  I quickly made some rough terrain images that will be adequate until I find something nicer later on -- though I might not bother; we'll see.  I have also grabbed icons from game-icons.net to represent the basic resources: food, wood, stone, ore, gems.  These assets are all put into my project directory as PNG files (actually they are symlinks to the assets which are elsewhere, but that is irrelevant), and will be pulled in by my data file.

My card data file is pretty straightforward.  A spreadsheet might be easier in many ways, but I usually use a comma-separated-values (CSV) file because years of working on Unix/Linux command lines has pretty much made me happiest when using Unix tools to manipulate text files, and that is what these are.  So here's the contents of my data file for my first pass, just to check things work OK...


And I can now add the following lines to my nanDECK code to pull in the data and put the images in the right places.  Note that for the resource icons I am using the ICONS directive which is a really useful tool to effectively turn letters into pictures, which is great.  I could actually also use this for the main image, which may allow for some interesting manipulation of the card data, but I'm not worrying about that this time.




And I changed the "AllCards definition to fit that I now have more cards in my set...


And, after building all that, here are the cards I have generated...

So I just need to figure out how many of each type of card I need and I'm done.


Capital Playtesting

Yesterday I took a second trip to London for the monthly Sunday meetup organised by Playtest UK.  The travel this time wasn't so smooth.  I hadn't checked that rail services were running as usual, so when I got to Didcot to find that a huge section of train track was closed, meaning a ride on a replacement bus service to Reading, then a train from there to Paddington (moving more slowly than usual due to other work on the way).  Then, in London, the Circle Line was closed so I had to make a change in my trip to Victoria.  Ah well, I had allowed plenty of time and was still able to grab a coffee and lunch before going to the pub.

I took Boogie Knights with me again, and got to watch version 0.6 played by four players (one of whom had played an earlier version) as part of the first session of testing.  I was trying out the new rules and cards, with a target of 10 points for the win, which made the game run a little too long -- I'll be revising this number down a bit in future, and this is actually a parameter that can be easily tweaked any time to help hit my target play time of 15 to 20 minutes.

Aside from observations about game length, I made a few more notes and took down plenty of comments and suggestions from the players.  Possibly the biggest issue this group was feeding back was that they felt that there was not enough to do each turn, and there was a general feeling that they were looking for a little more complexity and depth.  I think this is the first time I have had that particular line of feedback, but it did come after I had cut a fair bit out of the game, so they may be on to something.  Or it might just be that this was the feeling after the game ran a bit long.  Or maybe this is just an out-lier result.

You see, this is one of those things about playtesting, and something I am only now really starting to appreciate as Boogie Knights has had a fair bit more playtesting with other people than any of my other games so far: feedback from one group may mean nothing, or it may mean everything, and it probably means something different to what they are actually saying.  One playtest just gives a data point, and that needs to be compared with others to figure out how it all fits together.  Sometimes (as with my previous couple of sessions), the message is clear quite quickly, but other times you just need to plug along and get more data.

Fortunately, I think this version is looking stable enough that it could stand a few more rounds of playtesting to help find what needs to happen next.

Of course, I played a load of other games at various stages of development: steampunk airships travelling through a portal in time and space to hunt dinosaurs; a team game where one member of each team is colour-blinded with red-lensed glasses and has to be guided to identify tokens of their team colour in a game of What's My Line? meets Guess Who; a boules-like game of frisbeeing beer mats; and a "saga-driven" game set in a battle for a Helms Deep style megafortress, where players are trying to earn their places in heroic songs, which could be by being involved in a tragic love affair just as much as by feats of heroic derring-do.

I totally love all this playing of prototypes.  Just being exposed to all that creativity is kinda intimidating, but it is also inspiring, and the level of mutual support being shared around is amazing.  Now, when can I get down there again...?


Boogie Five is Alive!

Version 0.5 of Boogie Knights is up and running, and after giving it a test with a table of players who hadn't tried it before, I'm pretty sure it is an improvement over the previous iteration.  The main changes for this version were that accessories had been fully done away with, along with the special moves, and I had added possibility of playing a face-down piece of equipment for a "quick change" (when you are challenged, you can choose to swap your quick change card into your equipment).

In addition, I had tried to speed the start of the game up a little by allowing players to discard and replace as many of their initial hand of cards as they like, and then play a card into their quick change slot before starting.
Oh yeah, I had some new kit cards too!

After playtesting we had a really great discussion with lots of suggestions flying around. While the game is basically OK, everyone spotted something that just didn't seem quite right for them.  Possibly the row of face-up cards in the armoury didn't feel like it added much to the game.  Or the magic cards didn't seem good value (and also seem a little incongruous in the setting).  Or the fact that the "challenge anyone" cards are strictly better than the "challenge left/right" ones might have been irksome.

So I ended up with a load of notes, and have been working in my head on ways to improve the game.  I had a load of thoughts about what to do next, and was intending to make a couple of minor changes and then getting on with more testing, working in a slow, incremental way.  I mean, I am planning to attend another testing day in London this coming Sunday, and I only have so much time until then, so can't really do anything major...

But then an idea that has been at the back of my mind for a while clambered to the front and has been clawing its way into my brain and refusing to go away...

So the idea develops from a simple thought that, instead of amassing tokens to count towards victory, players' progress is marked on a score track.  What this allows now is an easy way to see who is in the lead, and that suggests something thematic: surely there is more glory to be had from defeating someone who is more renowned than you than someone who is behind you on the track.

I won't go into all of my thinking right now, but where I have ended up is on a plan to scrap almost all of the challenge cards and only have "challenge anyone" cards for the two disciplines.  Then, if the person who wins is behind their opponent on the score track, they win two prestige, otherwise they win one.  Right away I suddenly have a simpler game with a lot less to explain and, potentially, added some more interesting decisions to make.  Plus I think this should address several of the issues that have been raised over the last few months.

Ah, sod it!  I can get this sorted before the weekend.  In fact, as I write this, I'm nearly done -- it mostly required deleting stuff out of my data file that I feed into nanDECK to construct my cards.

As a small aside, I'm also replacing the magic cards with "Dirty Tricks" cards, which allow you to swap two cards and then issue a challenge.

Time to get that card cutter out again...


Boogie Fails

Last week I finally pulled my finger out and produced version 0.4 of the Boogie Knights cards, and then this week I got to playtest using these and some modifications to the rules I had been working on, though I hadn't actually got around to producing a new rulebook to go with the cards.  We actually managed to have a couple of games using different rule variants, as I was looking for clues as to where I was to go.

The main change from version 0.3 to 0.4 was that I had removed the accessories and added "special move" cards that could be played on someone else's turn to give a bonus in a challenge and increase the element of surprise and uncertainty.  Rule-wise, I had also added the rule that you could discard and replace as much of the hand of cards you were originally dealt, and that you could play an equipment card face down in front of you and then, when challenged, you could choose to "quick change" into that equipment.
Pour encourager les autres
So the playtests of this new set suggested that the changes I had made resulted in a worse game overall.  The card mix was all to pot and the special moves just didn't really seem fun.  I was effectively adding a new card type and associated rules, without making the game more interesting or enjoyable.

Version 0.3 had some shortcomings, but stuck around for some additional playtests as it was a reasonable base on which to experiment. In this case, however, I detect a blind alley, and I'm going to abort and try something else.  It is possible that the special moves are fixable, and I may come back to them in another form later on, but for now, so long!

Actually it wasn't all negative.  The face-down quick change cards were deemed good, and I think they pretty much achieve what the special moves were meant to do, so that rule will stay for now.  And the optional mulligan at the start was good.

So, so long version 0.4, we barely knew you!  Coming as soon as I can manage, version 0.5...