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.