Goofing About in an Airport

We were away in Ireland over Christmas and on the way back we found ourselves with a few hours to kill in Dublin airport, given our tendency to schedule travel very conservatively, so when everything runs on time we end up with space to fill.  My daughter, Miss B, and I spent a little while improvising a card game, which turned out to be good, if chaotic fun.

This is how things went...  We started with a pen each and some blank cards (kit I usually have with me while travelling).  We could either write whatever we liked on a card, or (later on) use a card made earlier in the game, and we would each select our card for the round simultaneously.  Once we had both chosen our card, we would reveal the cards and decide who had won.  The winner would take both played cards into their hand, but could not use them again immediately.
Some of our cards. Beautifully presented they are not.

At first things were a bit random (the first two cards were "An Elephant Wearing a Cowboy Hat" and "Squirrel Girl"), but as we went on, we started to create cards that could give more flexibility or special effects, or provided a counter to an earlier card (Squirrel Girl, being naturally unbeatable, is nevertheless vulnerable to "Delicious Nuts That Make You Go To Sleep").  Where a winner was not clear, we just discussed and decided between us -- with my wife, S, as an impartial judge when we weren't sure.

Obviously this is just a bit of dumb fun, and it was a great way to pass a bit of time, but it seems (in principle, at least) a good way to organically develop some card interactions, particularly if we crack the cards out again and continue to expand the game using a combination of pre-existing cards and, probably, a limited number of blank cards each time.  We fully intend to do this in the future.

This game is actually fairly similar to one called 1000 Blank White Cards, which usually starts in a Fluxx-like "draw 1, play 1" pattern and then can go off in any direction from there, and again uses a combination of blank cards (which you can turn into anything you want when you have them) and pre-existing cards created during a previous play.

1000BWC in turn derives from Nomic, a game where the rules change during play due to player votes, and I assume the commercially-produced Fluxx must have been inspired by one or more of these other games.

In just the limited amount of play we had of our little game, we quickly started seeing a metagame emerge, and if we do play some more, I would expect that to continue.  I really don't know what to expect, but I think this is the point.  I think it's a little like doing improv workshops to develop acting: just learning to roll with whatever happens is valuable in itself.


24 Hours of Reindeer

Over the last few weeks I have been struggling a bit on game design motivation and on energy in general.  This is the sort of thing that can easily slide into just endlessly doing nothing, so I needed to address this somehow.  I saw an opportunity in the monthly 24 hour game design contest on Board Game Geek and the fact that there were a couple of days where I could plausibly have a go at the challenge.  So this weekend I took the step.

The requirement this time was "reindeer".  As always, you are allowed to interpret the requirement in any way you like, and due to a cut & paste error on the contest forum thread, there were a few jokes about Star Wars and I was considering doing a joke entry about the Kessel Run, but when the time came I decided to go for something a bit more straight.

There is talk on BGG about a nine card "nanogame" contest that got me thinking about what I could do with nine cards myself, and when I then thought of the eight reindeer named in Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St Nicholas", I figured those eight reindeer plus a sleigh conveniently makes nine things that could be on a card.  This combined with my general keenness to play with dice and some thinking about push-your-luck games and games of chicken (Welcome to the Dungeon came to mind for some reason), and an idea started to form.

I'm getting to quite enjoy making these simple mock-up illustrations.
What I ended up with was a game where you add dice (in four colours, pulled from a bag and rolled) to the sleigh card, representing the load of presents, and add reindeer cards (each player starts with two of these) face down to be harnessed to the sleigh (to a maximum of four), or you bug out (in the style of Welcome to the Dungeon). When there is only one player left who hasn't passed, that player reveals the harnessed reindeer, manipulates the loaded dice/presents according to special abilities on the reindeer, and then if the total of the strength numbers on the reindeer is at least equal to the total values on the dice, they win a point -- otherwise everyone else gets a point.  First to three points wins the game.

Just for posterity, here's the original prototype. Unfancy to the max.
This has not been extensively playtested --  I managed a little bit of solo testing, with imaginary players (not ideal for a game with decisions partly based on hidden information!) and a two-player run with Miss B -- but it's rare that a 24 hour game gets much testing.  What I did suggests that this game, if anything is to come of it, needs a lot of testing and some serious thinking about how to make the decisions meaningful, or at least fun.  It's not completely dreadful for a first draft of a game, but it's not exactly my finest effort.

What it is, however, is a (just about) playable game and an exercise for the game design neurons, so I'm very much glad I got off my butt (metaphorically speaking -- physically I was sitting down for most of the process) and did something.

If you are interested, here is my entry, including links to the rules and print and play file.


Back from the Dragon Invasion

Saturday was a very long day, having to leave home early in order to drive to the next town to catch a train to get me to London, then detour on an indirect route around the underground due to line closures, get to Dragonmeet, run a playtest of Invaded, help out at the Playtest UK area, actually play a few games, and then make the return journey.  All pretty much powered by coffee and pasties.
Ready to play. Thanks to the wonderful Mr Dave Wetherall for the pic.

First order of the day was in getting to the venue in time to run a playtest of Invaded at my booked time of 10:00.  This wasn't a problem, but it turned out to be a bit tricky to get a table of players at the start of the day.  Two guys eventually came and volunteered and I decided that I would rather sit out and watch a two-player game than participate in a three-player run.

The game went well, with my volunteers taking very different strategies and having role-played discussions about the relative merits of resisting versus collaboration.  One of them did keep forgetting certain parts of the game (I need to examine whether that is a problem with the game, or not something to worry about), but the other seemed to get comfortable with it all pretty quickly and built a strategy to follow.  As is often the case, an aggressive approach against the colonial forces ended in disaster, but it would have actually not taken too much to go differently for things to have worked out better.  I think that fighting back is a strategy that is difficult to profit from, but it is possible, and those times it works out are great.

My main intent with this playtest was to try out my new way of dealing with strategy cards and controlling access to them: each has a value, and the total value of strategy cards you hold may not exceed the current colonial attitude score.  I'm not 100% happy with the way you have to add things up and compare them with a number on a chart, but it seems to work well overall, preventing one player from having easy access to the best cards, and allowing for some planning ahead, so it may well be worth the small amount of complexity.  The values I have assigned to the cards don't seem too far off the mark at the moment, but I'll need to do a load more playtesting to be sure of this.

The pacing of the game seemed pretty good though, and we took almost exactly an hour to get through the game, which ended half way through the fourth round.

So we're definitely making progress here, but I need to get more playtesting done to check how the pacing is really working out, and to find the imbalances in the costings of the strategy cards.  There's still this issue where a player who attacks the colonial power without sufficient preparation usually ends up getting into huge trouble very quickly.  My inclination here is to just let it go as a feature of the game.  I'm sure that this is going to be a controversial part of the game, so it'll be interesting to see what gets said when I finally start talking to publishers about it.

Apart from running a playtest of Invaded, I spent a little while looking around the rest of the convention, including the now separate trade hall, but didn't get much of a chance to stop and really smell the metaphorical coffee before I got back to spend the bulk of the afternoon helping out at the playtest zone.  It felt a bit harder to attract players to join in tests than it was last year, probably mainly because there was less footfall in the area where we were. But we managed to get plenty of people in, many of whom had come over specifically, which was great.

I got to play a few games myself, mostly after the closing of the trade hall and playtest zone, which was very welcome before heading home for a beer.


The Dragon of Hammersmith Returns

It's that time of year again. Next Saturday (2nd December) is the Dragonmeet games convention in London.  I really enjoyed going last year, so this year I'll be heading over once again -- and this time I'm planning to stay for at least a little while into the evening.
Once again I'm just yoinking an illustrative picture from the Dragonmeet website.
It belongs to them, not me.
I am planning to run a playtest of Invaded for part of the morning, and then help out at the Playtest Zone for the afternoon, leaving me a little free time around lunchtime, and then in the early evening. We'll see what I can get up to in that time. If you're planning on going along, hopefully we'll be able to at least say hello and exchange a high-five.


The Invasion Plods Onwards

What with one thing and another it has been a good few weeks since my last playtest of Invaded, and this was a bit of a two-edged sword in that it was good to have a bit of a break and clear my head of a game that I had been becoming a bit too close to, but conversely, getting back into the swing of things took some real effort.  Two of my local playtesting pool came along and joined me for a run of the latest iteration of the game, with a couple of very minor tweaks since last time. 

I have been thinking lately that the game seems to have more or less the shape I want for it, and most of the elements are basically OK, but we've been having difficulty with pacing and the length of the game.  Specifically, in several test plays we have seen the game ending in a way that left everyone thinking that they hadn't quite played long enough to get strategies up and running properly.  So my tweaks were mostly an attempt to make the game give players just a few more turns and to have more opportunity to execute a strategy.

This particular play went amazingly well.  Play time was almost exactly an hour, one player got a comfortable (actually too comfortable, but that's mostly a number balancing issue) win, with the other two of us both feeling that if we had just had another couple of turns we'd have done a lot better, and possibly even won.  There were a heap of balance issues, but the flow and feel were all pretty much what I wanted, and I ended up with a good pile of notes from in play and feedback from afterwards.

The thing to recognise at times like this is that one good play doesn't mean that the game is done, but it shows that the game can be good.  What remains is pretty much to look for all the problems and do everything I can to make those good plays happen every time rather than occasionally.

I would like now to start moving the testing and development into a new phase.  I have been joining in most of the plays so far, but while this gives me a good feel for the game and how it feels to play it, it means I can't really observe the other players and the flow of play quite as well, so I plan to sit out and watch more often.  I also need a combination of a pool of experienced players repeatedly playing (I have a few fine people here who can help there) and a few more newbie groups to play the game for the first time or two.  Overall, the emphasis now has to be on hunting down those imbalances and broken elements that I haven't been worrying about so far; the game has its shape, so I don't want to make major changes at this point.

I also probably need to find a new name for the game.  The current working title, "Invaded", does seem to be a sticking point for a few players who go in expecting a combat game, which this most definitely is not.  It's only a working title, but it has been problematic.


24 Hours of Solo

On a bit of a whim I decided to have a go at the current 24 hour game design contest over the weekend. I knew that I had other things to do, but I managed to plan things so that I could allocate a few hours here and there to work on my project. A big part of the 24 hour contests is figuring out what you will be able to achieve in the available time, so while I wouldn't be able to achieve as much as I might normally, I should at least be able to get something done, which is pretty much the objective of the exercise.

This month's contest requirement was "solo", which of course has a lot of folks (myself included) thinking of solitaire games, but on reflection I started thinking about things like solo round the world flights, the classic card game Solo Whist (I used to play that with my grandparents as a teenager), and of course, Han Solo.  By the time I got to starting I was thinking about guitar solos, so that ended up being the core of my theme.  Remember that, in the 24 hour challenges, the requirement can be interpreted however you like, as long as your game incorporates the word or phrase in some way.

Possibly not the most compelling image of a game you're ever going to see.

What I ended up with was a game where you collect cards representing sections of a song (verse, chorus, etc.) and lay them out into a tableau representing your song, with each card restricting your options for the next.  After everyone has created their song, each gets scored according to various set collecting criteria which are randomly selected, some of them at the start of the game and some at the end.  I repurposed (or reinterpreted) a mechanism that I rather like from Doctor Who The Card Game ('Only be sure always to call it please, "research"'), where you pass your unused cards after taking your turn to the player on your right. In this case, you have a hand of six cards, of which you play two, keep two, pass two, then draw two and wait to be passed two.  I'm actually quite pleased with that. 

This game has had only very light testing at this point, and basically works, though needs a lot of work if it is to become a solid game. I also decided (as you can see from the picture above) to not bother with finding artwork to put on the cards; a search of free or CC images online would go a long way to making the game look a lot nicer.

If you are interested, then here is the contest entry, which has links to download the rules and print and play card file.


Back From Essen

After many years, I have finally popped my Essen cherry.  This is a big deal for me: I first heard about the event in the early 90's, and have promised myself ever since that one day I would go, but factors including finances, time, anxiety, and cowardice have always combined in various ways to hold be back.  This year, Cubicle 7, the publisher who have signed two of my games, asked if I would like to go along and help, and my very understanding wife gave me a nudge in the right direction, so I said yes, and off we went.

I spent most of my time on the Cubicle 7 stand with their team, Dom, Jon, and Becky, who are all jolly fine people to work with.  My task was to explain the basics of the non-roleplaying games on the stand to anyone who was interested.  This was mostly focused on the new releases, Cthulhu Tales, and the preview edition of my game, Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey, but there were also three Doctor Who games that I was covering as well.  Between them, it meant that I was talking an awful lot, but it was good practice to develop concise game explanations -- not actually a full rule runthrough on any of them, but intended to be enough to give a decent feel for what the game involves.

I did manage to look around the rest of the show during my breaks, and while I didn't get to play, and whoa! This is a huge show, making UK Games Expo look like a minor local event.  There were entire game shops with walls, windows and doors, within the halls, vast areas of demonstration tables, and some of the publishers had stages with cameras and large screens overhead, where presenters were hosting game shows to showcase their latest releases. All this time it was easy to just get swept along in the flow of a huge crowd on the move.

A small part of one of the halls on one of the quieter days!

One of the highlights of the event for me was selling out of Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey on day 3.  OK, so this was a very small print run, so the expectation (or at least the hope) was that we would sell out, but it was still amazingly gratifying and I owe a big thankyou to everyone who shelled out for a copy.  Given comments from people after the stock had gone, we would probably have been able to sell at least a few more if we had them.

And I owe an even bigger thankyou to the woman who came by the stall to tell me that she bought a copy the day before and had played it, loved it, and told all her friends about it.  Unfortunately we had sold out by this point so we couldn't sell more to her friends, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of the show.  I know that the game is sure to get criticism sooner or later, but the fact that at least some people are so enthusiastic makes it all worthwhile.

My favourite pic from the weekend and the source of much personal pride.
There were so many other highlights though, most of which actually involve interactions with people.  One of the big ones was meeting fellow designers published by Cubicle 7, Jeff Tidball, Francesco Nepitello, and Marco Maggi.  These are three of the nicest guys around as well as being great game designers into the bargain.  I was totally blown away when I spotted Francesco enthusiastically explaining about my game to someone he knew.

Then there was the guy who complimented me on my style of explaining games, which was really nice of him. And the high fives, handshakes, and fist bumps from so many other people I knew around the place -- and from all those I didn't know beforehand! There were also those funny moments, like when we were trying to arrange a team game of Cthulhu Tales with the designers only to realise that we had just sold our demo set so we couldn't.

SPIEL is different to other conventions I have been to in that it closes early every evening and kicks everyone out, but this means that there is a thriving fringe fair, with gaming areas set aside in many of the hotels, and parties and other events organised all over the town.  One evening I just crashed out in my hotel room to rest, but the other nights I was out and about, including a great Playtest UK meetup where we got to play a bunch of prototypes, including ones from some of our international friends. I didn't take a game along myself, and was very happy to just play and give feedback.

So, that was it.  I flew back home on Monday, absolutely knackered but happy to have been.  I'm sure I will go again, maybe next year, and maybe I will join the procession of game designers doing the rounds of pitching games to publishers.  That's a decision to make later.


Giftmas at Essen!

This is not a drill!  Something that I really wasn't expecting appears to be happening.  My first signed game design, Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey, will be available for purchase at Essen!
Image nicked from Cubicle 7 for promotional purposes.

The down side is that this is actually not a full release, but only a limited edition, "pre-release" version, and there is a serious emphasis on the "limited" there: it's a very short print run, and is there as a kinda promotional release for the main run in a few months time, but I am really excited to have one of my games actually available for people to buy and play.

Unfortunately there isn't a Board Game Geek database entry for the game yet, but that should follow soon. 

So, the upshot is that if you are in Essen and fancy getting yourself a lightweight game about unpleasant people swapping inappropriate gifts, come along to Hall 6, C120, and grab a copy while stocks last!

Here is the Cubicle 7 news item that includes the Giftmas news.


Ich Gehe Nach Essen

I first heard about the SPIEL games show in the early nineties, when I was introduced to the joys of German games, and I have wanted to go ever since. In all those years, finances, time, confidence, and all manner of other factors and excuses have conspired against me going, but finally I get to go this year!

In case you don't know about the event, SPIEL (held in the town of Essen in Germany, and often just referred to as "Essen") is generally recognised to be the biggest board game show in the world.  There is some argument about whether GenCon (in the USA) is bigger, or is even a valid comparison, but that doesn't really matter, SPIEL is a huge event.  This is the event where hundreds of new games are launched each year, and thousands of geeks mingle with many thousands more families, all looking for the best new games and bargains.   It's also a place where freelance game designers take the opportunity to meet with publishers (pretty much every publisher worth noting has a stand) to pitch designs.
Image yoinked from the SPIEL website.
For my first visit to SPIEL, I'm not planning on pitching any games; the intent is mostly to get a feel for the place and, you know, just be there.  I'm travelling with Cubicle 7, the publisher who has signed my first two games.  Unfortunately the games are not yet ready, but hopefully it won't be too far into 2018 before they are available.  Anyway, I will be working at their stand for most of the time, so if you are going to Essen (between 26th and 29th October), please do pop round to Hall 6, stand C120, and say hello. 

It's all very exciting for me! 


Roll, Move, Race

Game designers are always talking about "rehabilitating" old game mechanisms and styles to make something new.  Recently, Kingdomino made a nice game inspired partly by dominoes. A few years back, Oddball Aeronauts was a brave stab at working with Top Trumps. And so on.  One mechanism that keeps being talked about is the much-maligned "roll and move": you know, you roll the dice, move around the board, and something may happen.  

Basically, the benefit of roll and move is that it is so intuitive for people brought up on a diet of snakes & ladders, Monopoly, and Cluedo, but on the downside it tends to remove choice and agency from players.

A couple of days back I was talking about this with my colleague, Phil, who also designs games, and this got me thinking.  After sleeping on it, I had a thought about a possible game using tiles (polyomino-style, a bit like Tetris blocks) to build a board and have players able to control that element, then roll dice to move around the board as a race.  Some of the squares on the tiles could have special things happening if you land on them, so you're trying to place board sections to provide handy benefits to you.

About an hour of work yielded a very basic prototype that I could try out on my own...

Roll, move, place tiles... Not much to it, really.

The rules:

  • You start off with two of the board tiles in hand, and your pawn on the edge of the board.  A couple of tiles get placed to make a start to the board.
  • On your turn:
    • You roll a die.
    • You may optionally place one board tile somewhere.
    • You move your die roll's worth of squares in one direction.
    • If you fall off the board tiles, you go back to the start.
    • If you finish on an arrow, you then move one space in that direction.
    • If you finish on a "tile" icon, you may draw one tile from the stock.
    • If you finish on a die icon, you get to roll an extra die next turn and choose which die to use for your move.
  • You win if you get to the other side of the table first, or if, when the tiles run out, you are closest to the finish.
That's about it.

So I was moderately pleased with how this turned out as a first attempt.  It did feel like there were choices to be made, though they were very light -- and this is fine with this sort of thing.  I think that the choices of effects on the squares were a good start, but there need to be a few others; in particular I like the idea of allowing players to gain lasting power-ups, so that is something to look into. 

We'll see where, if anywhere, this one goes in time...


Spoons FTW!

This is news from a few days ago, but I was a little surprised but very grateful to find out that "One Day at a Time", my game-like activity about managing spoons, has won the August 24-hour game design contest.  It's not something to get massively excited about (my winning entry got 4 out of the 10 votes cast, so it's not exactly a huge mandate!) but it's a really nice, warm feeling.
I'm being really lazy here and reusing a picture. This may be in-keeping with the theme.
The surprising element here is that I deliberately avoided specifying any way to win or lose (which is why I refer to it as a game-like activity), and wasn't trying to make the activity particularly fun.  It's all based on playing the game in a series of "days", on each of which you have a pile of tasks to do and you have to choose which ones to do and which to postpone.  Sometimes you'll be able to keep things under control for several days in a row, but then one day will come when everything will fall off the rails and you end up with a massive pile of uncompleted tasks which roll into the next day. Sometimes you can recover from it and sometimes it just gets worse.

This whole exercise has prompted a number of conversations with various friends and acquaintances regarding the whole "not having enough spoons" thing. A few have asked if I'm going to be developing this more and getting it published.  My natural response to this is that I have no plans along those lines: One Day at a Time was an interesting exercise for me, and allowed me to explore (briefly) a different facet of game design to what I have done before, but I don't think I have the strength to turn this into a really good game while being respectful to its inspiration.  And trying to pitch the game is a prospect I don't relish; it would take an extremely specific type of publisher to want to make and try to sell this!

Of course, there are elements of the game that I may reuse, and it has given me a taste for playing with non-standard styles of game, so maybe it will lead to something else in future. But for now, I'm drawing a line under this one.   Thanks to everyone who has voted, commented, or otherwise shown support.


Elemental, My Dear Watson

You may remember that I recently posted about experimenting with Magic: The Gathering by playing with the mana system and allowing you to identify what colour of spell a card has by its card back.  Well, I've moved this onwards a little.  Imaginatively, I have retooled these ideas into a new two-player, magical duelling game, partly because I was being thematically uninspired, and partly because most of my games so far don't work so well with two players, so I wanted to work on something for two.  Besides, doesn't everyone make a two-player, magical duelling game at some point?

A common trope for game designer is to make a game where you cast spells, but look! - there are six types of magic (or four, or seven...) rather than M:TG's five.  I can do that too, so I made my game about wielding the four elemental powers of earth, air, fire and water.  In another not-entirely original step, I decided that the game would be about trying to win a certain number of simultaneous battles.

So I threw together a first-pass prototype, with a few cards from each of the four elements, including elementals which are used to take control of a battlefield (or "realm" as I am calling them), enhancements to buff an existing elemental, and incantations which have instant and non-persistent effects.  The idea is that on your side of a battle you may not combine opposed elements, so if you play an earth elemental into a realm, you may not play an air card in that location, for instance.  As with that M:TG experiment, cards are used to power cards.  Apart from a few other card features, that was about it.

Playing this went pretty well -- certainly better than the Magic variant that it was built from.  There were, of course, plenty of problems, including that it was far too common to end up with pretty much useless cards in your hand, and that control of the realms could turn too quickly, but most of the issues were with details; the big takeaway is that this looks like a viable game in a form similar to where it is now.  Good enough for me to do some more work on, certainly.  I suspect that it would be difficult to get the game published (I mean, everyone and their dog makes magical duelling games, so you have to be really special to stand out) but I think my main aim here is to work on something that stretches different design muscles to the ones I have been using before, and see where it goes...


A Little Light Playtesting

I've recently had a couple of playtesting sessions (one at home and one over lunch at work) when we have played a couple of my lighter games, just generally looking for what needs to be done to them to make them better.
Cards, meeples and cake, the recipe for a good evening of playtesting.

After bringing My Name Is... to a Playtest UK meetup, I've been looking to see if there is anything to be done for the end of the game.  Other game designers had observed that, at least in the test game they played, the last couple of turns can feel a bit trivial and maybe there needs to be something to provide some sort of finale, so the game ends on a bit of a high.  We tried out the idea I had to make people have to remember any cards they have left in front of them in order to score them, but this felt really clunky and unfun, so got abandoned pretty quickly.  Further plays seemed generally fine as it is, though it sometimes feels a bit weird when one player builds up a big stack of cards, and the game seems very variable in its feel depending on how good people's memories are and how confident they are at making challenges.  What I need to do next is to use a rule where players grab a token in order to make a challenge and see how that goes.

One of my old 24 hour games, Treasures of Atlantis, has been busted out of deep storage for another look, and we have had a few plays, now working in a limited number of meeples that each player can use through the game -- originally you could take part in all rounds, however many there are, but now, if you place a meeple during a round (which you do to claim treasure, and you might miss your chance if the waters rise too quickly), that meeple is used up, so you may run out before the game is over.  This approach actually seems to work well and adds a little more tension, but it does sometimes mean that one or two players have to sit out the last round.  There are also possible issues when one player can sometimes collect enormous amounts of treasure if other players wimp out too soon, and also there is a non-zero chance that the game will end before anyone has collected any treasure.  I'd also like to rethink the set collection rules and possibly make monsters and boats work a little differently.


Hare Today, Invaded Tomorrow

I had been planning to stop taking Invaded to playtesting meetups in London as I thought the game was stabilising and would be better off getting focussed testing for a while from a group who could play the game repeatedly and look for problems.  Well, while the rate of change has slowed a lot, as this month's third-Sunday meetup approached, I felt that I could do with some more input from other designers, so off I went...

Getting to London was a bit more problematic than usual as the rail line I usually travel on was closed, so I had to take a detour via Oxford and end up at a different London terminal.  On the plus side, on the train from Oxford there were a couple of young women handing out free promotional chocolate, which went nicely with the coffee I had just bought myself.

Anyway, when the playtesting started up I was allocated a table in the first 90 minute slot, and had three other designers joining me, including two who had played an earlier incarnation of the game.

See? Actual people playing with me! Thanks to Rob Harris for the photo.
Overall the game went pretty well and I got a good combination of supportive and critical feedback.  The game ran for 50 minutes, which was great as I am hoping to keep it at about an hour, but there was a general feeling that the ending was a bit abrupt and came too early to allow strategies to really come into play.  This feeling was exacerbated by the "strategy" cards we had in play, which give an in-game benefit and an end-game scoring bonus, as these are definitely too hard to take advantage of.

Another issue was the balance of the cards in the colonial activity deck, and some aspects of how they work.  The approach I use works pretty well, I think, but there are points where things can be overlooked (like when the colonial aggression level changes), and the way things played out there just wasn't enough colonial presence on the board by the end of the game.

All of this is very fixable, and our discussion after the game came up with some good ideas, so I'll be trying some of them out in the coming weeks.  Unfortunately, though, this means that I won't be doing something that I was hoping to do.

Each year there is a contest run by a German games club called Hippodice, where the club members and a group of publishers combine to judge a variety of unpublished games. A couple of my friends at Playtest UK have actually won this contest.  It's quite a prestigious contest as these things go, but one of the big benefits is getting blind playtesting and written feedback from the club members if your game is selected for the "main round" of the contest.  The deadline for submission of rulebooks and supporting blurb is only a couple of weeks away, and with the amount of work I still want to do (and test) on Invaded, I feel that I'm just not going to get there in time.  It's a shame, but no big deal. Maybe next time.


One dream, one soul, one prize, one goal...

I've not done one of these experiments for a while, but this is one that I thought about quite a while back and set up the necessary components, but never got around to trying out.  The idea in this case was to explore using cards both to be played as a type of "activity" and as a resource to spend on those activities.  Not entirely original but this took me, after a little thinking, to wondering what Magic: The Gathering would be like if you could use a card either as a spell or as mana of the matching colour.

To cut a long story short, I ended up with a deck of 100 Magic cards, with 20 of each colour, all in opaque backed sleeves coloured to match the spell on the front, so white spells have white backs, red spells have red backs, and so on.  The plan was to have a two-player game of Magic using a common deck split into a few piles, so you can choose which pile to draw from and get some control as to the colours you draw.  To gain mana, you either play a card from your hand face down, or you discard one of the face down cards from a previous play, so each card can generate one mana of its colour, twice.

And to be clear here, I'm not trying to "fix" Magic, but the existing game provides a useful bit of scaffolding on which I can play with a mechanism.  If I like it, it may become something new.  (Apart from anything else, something I really want to try making is a two-player head-to-head game of some sort, and maybe this could be a start.)

...One golden glance of what should be... (it's a kind of Magic).
So I finally managed to persuade one of my game designer friends to give this a go over lunch.  As a game of Magic it was less than satisfactory: without the restriction of playing one land per turn, my opponent managed to play a couple of fairly powerful cards right away and I never really got a look in, but that wasn't really the point of the exercise.

What we did discover was that being able to have some sort of control over the cards that you draw (choosing from three piles in our case) and being able to see what colour cards were coming up in each pile made for some interesting decisions.  In Magic terms it meant that you were never mana starved, and it also meant that, as most of the cards in the deck were pretty stereotypical for their colours, you could to some degree go hunting for the type of spell you want.  Plus a card draw was almost always helpful -- though not always in the way you wanted!

I noticed that the management of resources could sometimes get a bit confusing, when you are using cards for mana from your hand or from the table, but I think that is a fairly minor issue that could be dealt with later.

Overall, though, we both felt that there was something there in the card management and use, so I'll be having a bit of a think about ways to work with this in a game that isn't much like Magic.  You never know, this could be the start of yet another new game...


Seasonal Invasions

I'm making slow but steady progress on Invaded and am working on yet another revision of the game: the new version is number 13. This iteration is actually a relatively small change from version 12, being mostly component tweaks, hopefully improving clarity, and a little reworking of some of the card texts, as well as introducing "default" setups which mean that first-time players won't need to worry about initial placement of their pieces.

One of the small, cosmetic changes, though, is reflecting the way I have been explaining the game, and the realisation that I might as well just embrace a metaphor.  The way the game works, you "activate" your units on the board in order to take an action, and activation means moving the piece from one space on a card to another.  One round is a "square" round and all the pieces move into the square space, and when everything is in the square on the card, the round is over. The next round is then a "circle" round, and units move back to the circle spaces. It's basically just a way to keep track of what pieces have been used without having to reset everything at the end of each round.

This works well, but some people find it a bit abstract and weird, so I have started explaining it as, "You might want to think about one round being one season, say the spring, and the circle is where you put units that have done something in the spring," and so on.  This metaphor seems to work pretty well, so I figured I might as well make it explicit in the game.

Subtle season signage.
So all I did was to add the words "spring" and "autumn" into the two activation spaces on the location cards, and now the explanation will reference these and I am hoping this will make things a little more intuitive.  I'm hoping to do some playtesting this week, so we'll soon see how it goes down.

Of course, I'm bracing myself for comments and questions about whether the seasons are mechanically different -- they aren't.  If I wanted to get thematic I could make seasons have an effect on resource gathering (for example, grain is more plentiful in the autumn), but I suspect this might be adding more complexity for no real gain.  We'll see...


What's my name again?

I have recently been taking a fresh look at some of my game designs that I haven't touched for a while, and this week it has been the turn of "My Name Is...", the game that I had previously described as an icebreaker game of memory and mental agility, a description I haven't been able to improve on yet.  The game got pulled out at a Playtest UK meetup at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and was, appropriately enough, used as a starter game while we waited for a few more people to arrive.

Just as a quick reminder, the game involves players taking it in turns to reveal cards which express an opinion (love or hate) about some subject or other (like cats, dogs, football, or vegetables) and you have to try to remember which other players have opinions on the same subjects as you, and what they are. The wrinkles come in that some cards invert your opinions (all of them!), and you can challenge other players if you think they got something wrong.
Striking fear into everyone's hearts -- and not just the player who drew the card!

The headline result is that the game went down fantastically well.  Once again there was a great combination of laughter and tortured facial expressions, which I think is a perfect reaction for a game of this type.

It wasn't all perfect, of course, and my woolly rules on what happens if you flip a card that contradicts one of your previous opinions were exposed for what they were (woolly and unsatisfactory) but with the help of the players we switched to an improved version that seems to work better.  More troubling is that the end of the game can just feel like that last bit of the roller coaster where you are just coasting slowly back, maybe still laughing (or nauseous) from what happened a little earlier, but generally just waiting to get off so you can get on with something else.  In other words, the end of the game was rather anticlimactic.

So this is my challenge right now, to give the end-game some kind of spark.  My instant thought was to make the exact moment of the game end to be less predictable, say by shuffling an "end of game" card into the bottom few cards of the deck, which I think would improve things but probably not by much.  An alternative approach, as suggested by one of the players, might be to make players name the cards they have left in their stack (if any) in order to score points for them, and I think some variation on this could be good.  I will certainly be testing some variants like this.  I'm also wondering about the optimum size of the deck, but I think that can be worried about later.


24 Hours of Spoons

I've been meaning to take part in the BGG 24 hour contest again for a few months, but I just haven't managed to line up the time and inspiration, but this weekend I figured I had a chance, though I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to manage the full 24 hours, so had to plan accordingly.

This month's requirement is "Procrastination". Cue a load of joking on the contest thread about putting off entries until later, and so on.

So after a couple of weeks of pondering (this is allowed as long as you don't write things down or create any game materials), the idea came, but it was a weird one, and it might merit some discussion, so please bear with me while I wander off-topic a little.

For the last few years I have been seeing occasional posts on Facebook from some of my friends saying something like "Out of spoons."  This is a reference to a thing that is sometimes referred to as "spoon theory", which is basically a metaphor for suffering from a long-term condition that results in you having limited resources of mental, physical or emotional energy to deal with the challenges in your life.  The idea is that each day you have a limited supply of "spoons" (the reason for this particular image is due to the physical items that happened to be available when this way of looking at things was first explained), and everything you do uses up a spoon.  When you run out of spoons, that's it, there is no more "you" available to deal with anything else.  You may be able to borrow spoons from the future, but tomorrow you'll feel that deficit.  Furthermore, for many sufferers of certain conditions, the activities that use up spoons may seem totally trivial to the rest of us, so sitting up in bed might use a spoon, then getting out uses another.  Maybe you'll appear to be fine in the morning, but if you haven't been careful with how you use your limited spoons, you'll be good for absolutely nothing by lunchtime.

This does not seem obvious material for a game theme, but there was something nagging in my head for a while making me want to do it. After all, the idea is simply about making use of limited resources to do as much as you can, which is hardly a new concept in gaming, and the "procrastination" aspect comes from the fact that as part of play you will have to put off many activities until later.
My game materials. I think if I hadn't been so tight for time I would probably have added images to the cards to make them look a little nicer.

The problem is that, when working with subject matter like this, it risks trivialising struggles that many people really experience and, probably even worse, passing judgement on or preaching to them.  For instance, applying the concept of winning and losing to something that people go through every day as they deal with a condition they have, seems fundamentally wrong to me.

My solution to this might seem to be a bit trite, and I'm sure I haven't got things right here, but I decided to call this a "game-like activity" for one player, which you play for as long as you like, and which has no victory or loss conditions.  You play through one "day", completing what tasks and activities you can, and then move on to the next day, and repeat if you wish.  I have taken some significant liberties with the concept of spoon theory, not least of which that the game is a series of decisions about which of two or three activities to complete, rather than purely being about managing your spoon supplies, but the whole spoon theory is just a useful metaphor rather than anything scientific, so I hope my changes work OK in general.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, from the limited testing I have managed so far (I have 24 hours to make components, test, revise, write up rules, and upload all game materials, remember) the project I now call "One Day at a Time" works more or less as intended.  Some days are straightforward and cause no problems, then after a while you end up with a nightmare day or two where you just have so many tasks to do and so little time or energy to do them.  I'm not sure I will do any more with this project, but it has been a very interesting process.

If you would like to see the rules and game materials, they are all available via the contest entry post on Board Game Geek.


Back to the Boogie

I had a playtest session this week, which was focused on Invaded, but after playing and some time on discussion, the players said that they were up for something else.  On a whim I pulled out Boogie Knights, a game that I haven't put in front of playtesters since autumn last year.

The last time I tested Boogie Knights, I was trying an alternative system where, instead of rolling dice to resolve challenges (in disco or combat skills), you played cards for their numerical value.  This went down well with the playtesters and I was happy with the change at the time, but since then I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that the players were all "serious" gamers and that the play time pretty much doubled from previous plays.  It was great that the players felt engaged and thought that there were decent decisions to make, but the more I reflected, the more I felt that the game had become something that I didn't really think it should be.

Complete sets of kit for almost everyone.

So we went back to the previous version of the rules, with a small tweak (rolls of 6 "explode") and gave it a go.  I would normally have my notebook open and writing down comments from the players and observations about their behaviour, but this time I didn't bother, I just wanted to give this game an airing and get a feel for it again.

Overall I'm pretty content with this playtest. I feel that this form of the game is not very far from "done" from my point of view, and I may give it a cosmetic change or two (like getting the action cards to have the same style art as the kit cards) and then pretty much leave it.  I was given advice that more publishers would be interested in the game if I could lose one of the types of component (specifically the dice!) but now I think that I will just go with what I have, and if someone wants to publish it, that would be great, but otherwise I have learnt so much from developing Boogie Knights from that rough 24-hour game design from two and a half years ago.

Also, whatever else, I enjoy playing it!


Returning to Corlea

You may remember last year I wrote about a trip to an archaeological site in Ireland, where an impressive iron age road made of oak had been discovered in a bog in County Longford, and how I made a simple race game inspired by it.  I didn't do any further work on that game, but the idea of basing a design on the Corlea trackway stayed in the back of my head, waiting for another idea to combine with.

I'm not really particularly imaginative about game mechanics, but thoughts about combinations of mechanisms that might be fun to fit together jump into my mind once in a while. And so it was that I started thinking about an area control game (players put tokens in various areas and, at various points in the game, score points according to whoever has the most points in each area) where the placement of these tokens is controlled by a worker placement system (players put "workers" onto spaces on a board to take actions, and these placements limit those available to other players).  The action spaces on the board would, however, be on a modular board that grew during play, so every now and then a new "slice" of board would be added, opening up new options.  Thinking about this a little more I thought that it would probably make sense for the workers to always move forwards along this extending track, and the turn order would be decided by the worker furthest from the front taking the next action, taking a cue on this from the delightful game of taking a walk in Japan, Tokaido.

That was all well and good, but some basic mechanisms do not a game make, for me at least, and I feel that I need some sort of theme (which may change later) to guide my decision making as I build and develop a prototype, so I was pretty much stuck until I remembered the Corlea trackway.  Slices of a board that grow during play could representing building sections of the trackway, and there are several tasks that can form the core of the game: cutting down trees, splitting the logs into planks, transporting the wood to the bog, and building the trackway itself.  It all started coming together...

So the core of the game is about those four key tasks: cut timber, make planks, transport planks, and build trackway.  Each of these actions is triggered by moving a "chieftain" (the tokens used for action selection) onto an appropriate space on the trackway.  When an action is triggered it moves a wood token along the board, indicating its current status and availability for further tasks, and points are scored according to who has the most "workers" (wooden cubes indicating clansmen as labour resources) assigned to that task.  Workers get moved around as part of various actions.  I also added a fifth task, which is to feed the workers, which scores points and allows the points scored for each task to be rearranged (this is indicated by little score tiles on each task space.

Finally I added a little extra interest in the shape of three types of special cards which can be acquired by sending a chieftain to appropriate action spaces... Offerings are items which you craft and can dedicate to the gods when you build a section of trackway (as an aside, these trackways commonly had offerings laid beneath them, but the archaeology of the main Corlea trackway showed surprisingly little evidence of this) to give you end-game scoring bonuses for sets. Skills are bonuses that apply to your workers all the time, like breaking ties for scoring on a task.  King's favours are one-off bonuses that you can make use of at an appropriate time.

I've done a bit of solo testing of this so far and just the one try with another player, and it plays OK and isn't terrible, but doesn't quite hang together right yet.  In particular, the trackway sections all seem a bit samey (there is some variation, but it is minor) and the way workers get deployed and moved about just doesn't feel right as it is.  I think there is a basis of a game here, though, so it will be staying in the development heap for a while to see what I can do with it.


Lessons in Perspective... and Invaded

This weekend just past was another Playtest UK Sunday afternoon session in London, and once again I took Invaded along to see how things were going.  On this occasion, things went a little differently.

We had a four player game (including myself), and I settled in to explain the rules, acutely aware that partly as the game has been changing a lot recently, I haven't really developed an effective rules explanation.  This is something I really need to work on.  I was a few minutes into this ropy rules run-through when I started getting questions from the player to my left.  These weren't the typical request for clarification that I am used to, but more fundamental, calling into question the game from a very basic level and my assumptions about what the players would understand.  

I really should start thinking of a way to tidy things up and make the game look neater on the table.
It quickly became apparent that this particular player was not a hobby gamer like the rest of us around the table and did not have the shared vocabulary that the rest of us knew.  We ended up being a bit derailed into a conversation kicked off by questions about why anyone would invent a game as complicated as this one and what families I thought would be interested in it.

While frustrating at the time, this is actually an interesting point to ponder.  Invaded, by hobby game standards, is not a particularly complex game, but it takes a lot more explaining than the sort of mainstream games you can buy in high street shops in the lead-up to Christmas.  If it was given to the average non-geek family, it might be opened and the rules looked at, and then put straight in the pile of stuff to be sent to the charity shop.  It is important to keep in mind who the target audience for a game design is, and who it is not.

Despite being hit and slowed down by the Sledgehammer of Perspective and the Cricket Bat of Confusion, we did get a couple of rounds of the game played, during which I saw evidence that my new system for controlling the colonial power worked well in general (though some actions were too frequent and became dull and repetitive as a result) and, pleasingly, I saw the two more experienced gamers in the group grokking the rules easily and being able to explain them to the non-gamer.  I identified a few other small issues, but I think this test was mostly more evidence that I really need to start moving into a new phase of playtesting.

So the plan now is to fix the issues we identified in the current version of the game and then start to work on more intensive playtesting.  Yes, I know this game's development has actually been pretty intense (by my standards) over the last couple of months, but in this case I mean that I need to have people playing the game multiple times, look for balance issues, try all the different combinations of finale/mission cards, really concentrate on finding and fixing any areas where people get confused or disengaged.  Basically, it's a matter of turning what I think is now a reasonably decent game into a good (and hopefully great) one.

As Matt Leacock might say, the first 80% of the work is done.  Only 80% more to go...


Those objectives...

We're over half way through the year and I figure it's appropriate to look back at those objectives I posted in January, which were basically:
  1. Have at least a couple of pitchable games by the end of the year.
  2. Submit a game for Wyvern's Lair at UKGE.
  3. Work on at least one collaborative design.
  4. Help with more other people's rulebooks than I did last year.
So, how am I doing so far?

Well, it's too early to say on the pitchable games, but Invaded is moving along and is getting quite a lot of work done on it, so I think that should be on the pitch list within not-too-many-months, plus there are several other projects ticking along more slowly, so a little more concerted effort on one or two of those should yield some results.

Wyvern's Lair...  OK, I failed on this.  With a couple of weeks until the submission deadline I had been working mostly on Shooting Party, so hadn't managed to get anything else to a state where I was willing to throw it into the ring. As a result I decided to save my sanity a little by abandoning this objective.  Maybe next year...

The collaboration is looking good.  I am in the early stages of collaborations with two other designers at the moment: one is waiting on me to pull my finger out, while the other is currently being worked on by my design partner.  I'm looking forward to seeing how these very different games develop.

Finally the rulebook work.  I make a note of when I read, review or edit a rulebook, and I recorded eight such jobs last year, which wasn't bad, and only three so far this year, so I've fallen behind, but I could still make the target by the end of the year.  Opportunities do come up on a regular basis, so I just need to push myself forward a little more.

Really any objectives I set myself are pretty arbitrary at the moment, but I'm happy with the progress I have been making, and content that abandoning one of the objectives was the right decision.  And all this ignores the fact that I actually have two signed games now (I'll be shouting about those a lot when release dates are firmed up!), which is hugely cool from where I am sitting.  Also, I have managed to attend a decent number of playtest meetups as well as getting fairly regular playtest sessions where I live thanks to some amazingly tolerant local gamer friends.  It's all moving in a great direction; I just need to keep working and keep the morale up.


Back to the Trees

In a change from the recent obsession with one game, I recently dusted off an old design and gave it a test play at work.  The game in question was An Angel On Top, which was my entry for the 24 hour game design contest back in December 2015.  I just figured that it might be worth a look to see if it had any merit.

An Angel On Top (previous post here) is basically a simple, area control game where you score points for putting the most decorations onto Christmas trees, and more points for putting angels on top of them to finish the tree off, with your opportunities and choices constrained by a bit of dice rolling.  I tidied the old prototype up and tried it out with a friend at work, Phil, who happens to also be a game designer.  We sometimes play each other's prototypes over lunch, and this was what I brought in one day.

The game sort-of worked, it was a bit of fun, but got frustrating when the dice ended up combining with the available tree cards to give little or no choice on your turn.  We had a useful discussion and ended up with a few ideas for improving the game.

A bunch of components that comprise version 2 of An Angel On Top.
The trees could do with being coloured in.
A week later we got to try an improved version: bigger cards (tarot sized) with different sized trees on them, decorations that you could add as long as you could physically fit them on the tree without touching another decoration, special actions you could take when you placed an angel, and a few more dice to increase the available options.

The improvements were definitely improvements, and there was definitely more of a game there, though it still felt like it was missing something.  I think that the main issue is that the dice selection mechanism is a bit dull.  Our discussion on this suggests that maybe if you could use different sets of dice to take different actions (a pair does one thing, three-of-a-kind does another; a run-of-three is something else, etc.) you might have some more interesting decisions to make.

So, that's what I will do for the next iteration.  I doubt this game will ever be particularly unusual or groundbreaking, but it might be nice to have a half-decent, light Christmas game in the collection.


What's in a Name?

Names have a lot of power, and I had a reminder of this recently when a playtester was giving me feedback about Invaded.  To him, the game's title suggested that there would be armies and fighting, and in practice, an entire game of Invaded can go by without any actual combat happening.  The mismatch of expectations with reality was a problem for him.  (He also had some other very interesting bits of feedback, but I'll focus on this one for the moment.)

So, as the game has developed, I've started to think that the combat side of things is not really the default focus.  I think that the threat of violence is probably more important than the violence itself, and if there isn't actually any fighting, that is fine, particularly if the reason for there being no combat is that the players were actively working to avoid it due to the danger it promises.
Turns out it wasn't just the British getting up to this sort of thing.
By Anonymous French engraver 1883 - "Histoire de la France" Milan Jeunesse, p.209, Public Domain, Link
On a related issue, I have been calling the players' mobile forces "warbands", but was called out on this by another playtester at UK Games Expo, who suggested that a different name would align better with their usual function within the game.  He's absolutely right, and at his prompting, I have started referring to them as "hunting parties", which is starting to feel a lot better.

I'm really not sure about the best way to address colonialism.  In the real world, colonial invasions often ended up with some real atrocities being committed, and at the very least, indigenous peoples were forced to take part in systems that were not in their own long-term best interests.  The atrocities and injustices were considered to be justified in the pursuit of profit (or in order to bring civilisation to the savages, the classic bogus rationale), rather than being the objective.  With colonial invaders typically having such a huge technological advantage over the indigenous peoples, though, any resultant violence can inevitably be blamed of those holding the power rather than those who feel threatened and fight back.

A game exploring these themes, where humans are considered to be resources, obstacles, and even animals that need to be trained, could get really dark and heavy.  The problem is that I want this to actually end up being a game, something that people can enjoy playing and hopefully helps to generate stories.  Anything above that is cool, but I'm aiming at having a game rather than a history lesson or a polemic.  That said, I keep thinking myself round in circles, as the theme of Invaded is so influential in what design decisions I make, and the invaders need, at the very least, to treat the natives unfairly.

And the playtester's comment about the title has made me think.  Based on a 10 second description of the theme, this game could go in a number of different directions, and the way it plays at the moment could result in several of them.  I normally don't worry about game titles: for the most part they are working titles, and can change later, but in this case, the title is instilling expectations that often are not fulfilled.  If it was called "Game 2016-K", or "Steve", there would be no such baggage.

"Invaded" as a title might be best consigned to history, but what to replace it with?  Some of the ideas people have come up with over the months might be better, like "Colonised", "Colonialism", or "Indigenous" all have their own potential implications.

I guess that at some point I need to just choose something that seems to do a reasonable job of representing the game and its theme, and just live with it.  After all, if this actually ends up being published it may well get renamed or get a specific historical setting, so it's not really worth losing sleep over.

I realise that this post is a little incoherent as I am partly using it to help me think some things through, but I would love to hear anyone's thoughts about the subject.  Particularly if any of you have any insights into any of the periods of history where a colonial invasion has taken place, but general thoughts and opinions would be great too.


Run to the Hills!

I've had another period of fairly intensive testing of Invaded.  This little wave kicked off with a trip to the monthly Sunday afternoon Playtest UK meetup in London on a baking hot day. 

As always this was a great get-together, and I played three really interesting games, all very different, created by other players (a dice allocation thingy, a timed co-op, and an abstract tessellation game), but also had a 3-player play of Invaded.  

Now, this test went a similar way to the second game at UK Games Expo: one player attacked the colonial power a bit too early and was smacked down for it, only this time the retaliation was not quite as overwhelming, so the player in question was left dangling in the wind, feeling helpless, while the rest of the game completed around him.

The end of a 3-player game where red got themselves into a world of pain.
This all led to a very interesting discussion about what the game should be: should it be punishing and realistic, or should it be more easygoing and forgiving of mistakes?  To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where on that line it should fall, but I'm getting more of a feeling about it.  I think it should probably be pretty punishing, but hopefully have players able to see the likely outcomes of their actions, even on their first play, and that latter part is somewhere the game is currently falling down.  It also shouldn't be a war game, though violence should be an option that could be a plausible route to victory.

Another thing that came out of this was a thought that, perhaps, under certain circumstances, players should be able to escape from attacks or have options other than trading in favour cards (gained from supplying the colonials with their resource demands), which is currently the only defense.  I labelled this approach the "Run to the hills" strategy in my head, then went home to sleep on it.

Sleep is an essential ingredient in game design.

What this feedback, thinking and sleeping resulted in was a few cards that I labelled "finale cards" (I hate the name, but I'll think of something better later), which effectively provide special bonuses, either in victory points or in capabilities, which can be claimed and used in specific circumstances, and each player may only claim one of these cards during a game.  One of these, for instance, allows you to abandon your villages and be more mobile for the rest of the game, while another protects you from colonial attack as long as you keep them sweet.

Over the following few days I had a couple of two-player games and then went to another Playtest UK meetup, this time in Oxford, where we had a three-player game.  Distilling the key points from player feedback and my observations, I think the key things are:

  • The "finale" cards look like they could well be the making of the game.
  • BUT they absolutely are not right at the moment, neither in their form, how they are gained, or how I handle the opportunities for players to collect them.
  • For a first game, there really needs to be a "standard" start, a bit like used in Catan, as new players rarely have a clue about where to set up.
  • Villages are a bit boring: they need something else to do.  In fact there probably need to be one or two more things to do, though these could easily link to whatever the finale cards evolve into.
  • Remembering to flip colonial movement cards can be a problem with some play groups. 
I'm churning over ideas at the moment about how to address these.  I'm looking at a fairly big change now which mostly has a go at the last of those bullets: flip a colonial move card on every player's turn.  This would require a lot of rethinking, but I think I know how to do this, and along with some reworking of the finale cards it could yield interesting results.  I'll be working on this over the next few days, and then see where this takes us...


Invaded in Birmingham

I said I would go into the results of my playtesting at UK Games Expo, so here we go.  I had two 90 minute slots for playtesting, and as Invaded tends to run for approximately an hour at the moment, one slot is just about perfect for playing once, when you figure in rules explanations, discussions and feedback.
Blurry, blurry, blurry, but I used the good pic in the last post.
You aren't here for the quality photography are you?
My first game was on Friday afternoon when the Playtest Zone was having a slightly slow recruitment period.  I had two people volunteering to play, Amy and Kevin, and I decided to join in to make it a three.  This isn't really ideal, as my taking part means that I can't observe other players as well and may influence play more than I would like, but at this stage I am still building up a feel for the game, and I wanted to get more plays at three or four players if I could.

Overall the game went pretty smoothly, but the start of the game felt a little slow and aimless, partly because of the lack of initial demands, and partly because of the colonial power being slow in its initial advance.  Still!  The end of the game felt a little abrupt and there was a feeling that the colonial power could be more aggressive.  This latter point keeps coming up, and I keep tweaking, but I never seem to get it right.  I think I have probably been to gentle with the tweaks.  I remember some experienced designer (I have a feeling it was either Matt Leacock or Rob Daviau) talking about how when you are adjusting values in games you should go large on the changes, either halving or doubling rather than just tweaking the numbers.  At least to start with.  I clearly haven't internalised this.

I didn't want to change too much before the next test, but after a little thinking I figured that I could make a couple of small changes to the colonial attitude chart to hopefully accelerate the start.  The game at this point involved one colonial move after each player move until the colonial power got very aggressive later in the game, so I thought that possibly I could just up this to two cards at a time at the beginning, so the first few moves would involve the regiments expanding quickly, and then settle down to a more steady pace.  Alongside this I brought the first drawing of an attack card to an earlier stage, meaning that, particularly given the increased pace of movement, there was a chance of an attack at the end of the first round of play.
Can you spot the changes I made?

The Sunday test was astonishing.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a group of four players, Connor, Helen, Heather, and Derek, queueing to play before I was even set up, and they sat attentively through my inexpert rules explanation.  As an aside, at this stage of a game's development I find explanations difficult as the game is in a state of flux and I haven't yet got a handle on the best way to explain it.  Later on, when the game is relatively stable and I am teaching the game multiple times between revisions, the explanation can get a lot smoother.  Hopefully we'll get there with Invaded sometime soonish.

Anyway, the game started and over the first few turns I found myself needing to intervene or answer questions less and less.  One of the players wasn't quite clicking on some of the rules, but the others were able to put her straight without my help.  The game seemed to be flowing nicely, there was a little table talk, and the players all seemed well engaged.

Then something cool happened.

One of the players figured that they liked the idea of the victory points available from attacking he colonial power.  I had to clarify the attack system a bit, but the attack worked fine, knocking out a couple of colonial units and earning a couple of points of enmity.  Then the counterattacks started, and at the end of the round the attacking player, who didn't have many of the favour cards which are used as defences, got knocked back to just possessing a single village, and the following turn got wiped off the board.  He was logically eliminated one round (about 10 minutes of play) before being actually eliminated, triggering the end game condition I wasn't expecting to see for some time.

This whole turn of events was treated as a good bit of fun by the players, but revealed a part of the game that hasn't really shown up before.  We have now seen that the enmity system can result in devastating attacks from the colonial power, meaning that a player must think hard before attacking them and be ready for the potential counterattack.  I need to think about this and whether I need to protect players is some way from making a boneheaded move like attacking when they are not ready, but at the moment I am inclined to leave things more or less as they are and hopefully just make it clear in rules explanations just how dangerous attacks are.  On the other hand, it would be cool to make it so that the potential gain is enough to make players willing to risk it, so perhaps the victory point payoff for enmity tokens could go up.

More generally, I think the colonial behaviour is moving in the right direction, but is not there yet.  I am planning to make use of the different location terrains (the map cards are currently different colours, but this is purely decorative so far) as an input for deciding what moves the regiments make, which will make things rather less predictable than they are now.

Whoa!  An idea has just come to mind.  If I make a load more movement cards than are necessary and use a subset of them for any given play, it means that there will be a heap of uncertainty about what the colonial power will do at the start, but players should be able to learn the colonials' preferences and be able to predict its movements to some degree.  That has to be worth trying...

Anyway, thanks to all the testers from last weekend: you were all great and have given me a load to think about.  Now can I improve things some more...?