Thinking about a couple of games I played today...

While it's fresh in my mind, I just wanted to make a note about a couple of games I played today.  I had a nice day at OxCon in Oxford today, and the day was dominated by two fairly heavy games that ran for about 3 hours each.  I don't get to play bigger games often, so it is interesting when they come up.

The first was Svea Rike, a game from the late 90's, covering the fortunes of noble families in Sweden over 300 years from the 16th to 19th centuries.  The game has some really interesting features, with game play switching between two different modes of play depending on whether the country is at peace or at war with one of its neighbours, this state being determined randomly at the start of each round.  The rules are remarkably straightforward and play actually zips along quite nicely so the fairly lengthy play time didn't seem to drag.  There is a lot to think about, with a few possible paths to victory and interesting twists in the way wars resolve.  However, the game relies on many forms of random chance: the overall events taking place on each turn, card flips to determine the strength of an enemy (non-player) army and dice rolling to resolve the conflict, plus event cards that players can use to manipulate play.  It is the event cards that prevented me from really enjoying the game as much as I would have otherwise: many of them are, either directly or indirectly, "take that!" attacks on other players, and some can swing the game massively, while others are just utterly irrelevant.

I would really like to see Svea Rike reworked with a lot of attention paid to rethinking the event deck.  Constrained a little bit, the game could be something really special.  Mind you, from comments and forum threads I have seen, I know that some people totally love the chaos of the event deck.  My argument would be that these factors can be a lot of fun in a 30 minute game, but when the game runs for 3 hours, they just get in the way and can be frustrating.

The other game was Mac Gerdts' Imperial 2030, which is a complex worldwide conflict where players are financial illuminati, manipulating the actions of 6 world powers for personal gain.  The interesting thing here is that who controls each of the major nations changes as the game progresses: in our 4-player game, one player spent a chunk of the game controlling three of the nations -- and he did not actually end up winning!  This is a massively complex game with so many factors and moving parts in play, but it is one where clever game design has reigned all this in so that none of the individual mechanisms are at all complicated, and just about all the rules you need to know are written on one side of a player aid card, about A6 in size.

I am coming to the conclusion (rather later than many others, it would seem) that Mac Gerdts is a bleeding genius.  The other one of his games that I have played, Concordia, is another huge heap of complex interacting systems held together in such a way that it only takes a few minutes to explain all the rules, and from then the mechanisms of the game are just perfectly straightforward and intuitive, so you stop worrying about them and spend all your time trying to execute a decent strategy.  (Note to self: I really need to play more of his games.)

So, what do I take away from all this?  Well, there are several of the mechanisms in Svea Rike that I would like to experiment with, and the way the game offers simple, interlocking systems is really rather neat.  And in the case of Imperial 2030, I just aspire to the craftsmanship Gerdts shows in making the very complex very accessible.


Colonial Advances

Resurrecting the "Invaded" game in the midst of all the other business going on, I have a new prototype, with its own map cards, resource cards, and so on.  You'll see from the picture below that I have replaced the map hexes with rectangular cards; I'd still hope for a final game to have hexes, but this arrangement has the same adjacency features and it is a heck of a lot easier to iterate a prototype if I don't have to keep cutting out hexagons.

Three times through the (18 card) colonial action deck with no natives.
Incidentally the circle and square in each space is an attempt to track the use of tribal units for various actions: rounds alternate between being "circle" and "square" rounds (yeah, a "square round", I know...), and during each round, used tokens get put into the appropriate shaped space to indicate their status.  The next round they move into the other shape, so we don't need to reset things between rounds.  I even have a card with a circle on one side and a square on the other to indicate which round we are on.  This seems to work OK so far, but I need more testing to see how it goes down with a variety of players.

One of the big challenges with the game so far is in building a deck of cards to control the colonial forces.  The idea is that each round, a couple of cards are drawn from the colonial deck and this results in the colonial power moving around, landing new regiments, building forts, and attacking natives when they feel like it.  I've so far had a play with the deck running unopposed to see what it does.  As you can see from the picture, it didn't result in anything particularly interesting happen, apart from the single regiment detaching and plunging into the wilds before building a fort.

Of course, this is not a natural situation for the game: there would always be at least one tribe sharing the board with the invaders, but it does indicate things aren't exactly ideal.  So, still more work to do...


Hunt the Jugged Hare

This weekend marked my sorta-anniversary with Playtest UK, as it was the January London weekend meetup last year that was the first I went to, taking an old version of Boogie Knights along.  And I was back for my first meetup of the year, taking along my new Shooting Party game.
As usual I forgot to take a photo, so here's a totally authentic reconstruction.
(Luckily you probably don't know enough about the game to notice I forgot to add counters for this shot.)

As usual there was a good crowd in with a wide variety of games.  I kicked off with playing a game about stealing treasure from a volcano-dwelling dragon, followed by a game about TV game shows, and then one about making and decorating Chinese pots, before getting to try my own design and then finishing off with a game about getting drunk by drinking unknown liquids.

I was trying out a bunch of changes for Shooting Party, and was pleased to find that the bits that I had changed definitely improved things.  There were still plenty of things wrong with the game, though.  Many of the problems are basically balance issues (card A is too powerful, card B is pointless) but I'm not worried about those at the moment.  Yes, it's good to identify this sort of thing and start improving, but right now I want to get the general flow of the game good, after which I can do things like balancing up the cards (though some imbalance is appropriate in a light, fast game, as I want this to turn out) and adding some more interesting features.

The flow, however, was definitely being hindered, mostly by two elements:

  • Reloading of weapons was clumsy, unintuitive, and un-fun.  Sure, it was OK from a thematic point of view, but it keeps players from having fun, so it'll have to change.  I have in mind a vastly simplified system to drop in and try out instead, and I feel confident it will make things work better.
  • If a player starts with a poor hand of cards and is unlucky with draws, they can end up being left behind and have a boring game.  I have a plan to deal with this involving a stack of starter cards, and I want to playtest whether to just deal these out or have a quick round of drafting to ensure everyone has some control over their start hand.
In general, I think a playtest has been successful if it allows you to identify problems with a prototype.  It's even better if you can identify possible solutions to at least some of those problems.  As a result, this was another very successful playtest.


Into '17...

So what am I planning to do in 2017?  From a game design perspective, anyway.

Well, obviously I will continue to work on some of my existing projects and, inevitably, I will start a load of other games along the line.  I think that this year, however, the main objective is to get at least a couple of games to a state where I can start seriously pitching them.  I will make that a slightly more SMART objective and state that I will aim to have some sort of a pitch meeting with at least one publisher at UK Games Expo.  That's not hugely adventurous, but I want to just learn what I am doing.  And by the end of the year I want to have a portfolio of at least a couple of games that I feel happy presenting to publishers.

This year will, of course, involve a lot of cutting out prototype cards.

Thinking of UKGE, a call has just come out for submissions to the Wyvern's Lair, the boardgame version of Dragon's Den.  I submitted to that last year but was not accepted for the final event, and I'm determined to have another go this time around.  The deadline is in April, so I will have to decide what to submit by then.

As an aside, I'm being a little disingenuous in talking about building up to pitching a game as in truth I am currently in negotiations with a publisher about one of my games, but this came about through a series of fortuitous events.  Nothing is settled yet, but hopefully I will soon be able to announce some news one way or the other.

Other plans include getting involved in at least one collaborative design.  I have been chatting with one of the other Playtest UK attendees about possible projects, so that might result in something.  Basically, everyone I have talked to who collaborates with other designers seems to find the experience really helpful for developing games more quickly and enabling more interesting ideas than is likely with solo design.  Trying to work with someone else should also help me learn a load more about my own strengths and weaknesses, which has to be helpful for the future.

I will also continue to offer assistance with people's rulebooks as and when I can, and really must make a little more effort to do this, so I guess the objective is to get involved with reviewing more rulebooks than I did last year.

Right, let's see how I do this year...


So Long, 2016

Happy new year! OK, so it's a week into 2017 and I still haven't got around to writing a blog post, so perhaps it's time to get off my backside and do something.  It's traditional around this time (though usually a bit sooner!) to look back at the last year and forward to the new one, so let's do a bit of that.  I'll do what I did last year and start with a retrospective post.

Given the general perception of 2016 being a horrible year, it was actually a pretty decent year for me from a game design point of view.  This time last year I said that I wanted to concentrate largely on playtesting, developing my existing projects more, and improve my rulebook writing, and all of these have made some progress.
Conveniently, most of my games so far fit into these handy deck boxes.  Here are a few of the ones I've been working on over the last year.

From the playtesting point of view, my biggest step forward has been to get involved in the Playtest UK community, mostly by attending as many of their Sunday afternoon meetups in London as I could, as well as one meetup in Oxford, but also going to a couple of their public playtest sessions, at UK Games Expo and Dragonmeet.  All of this helped gain very useful feedback on the games I brought to these events.  But the side benefit to this is that when I described Playtest UK as a community, I really meant it.  Through these meetings I have met many game designers from newbies like myself to award-winning veterans with many published titles, and they all contribute their time, expertise and support to help each other make better games.  Over the last year I have learnt a great deal from these people, who have all made me feel welcome and helped me battle the demons of self-doubt.  I'm looking forward to continuing with these activities as much as I can.

Developing existing projects rather than starting new ones...  Well, that has been of more mixed success, but has gone OK.  Boogie Knights has remained in the mix and I've kept plodding away with it (not yet sure if it's going in the right direction, but...), but that's about it for my older games.  I have, however, pushed several of the new games I created in 2016 further than most of my earlier projects, and some of those are looking like I will keep working on them in the future.

Partly as a side-effect of trying to work more on individual projects, I haven't been as active in the 24 hour design contest world as I was in 2015 -- I only actually submitted one entry -- which is a shame, as I enjoy those challenges and they have been very helpful in building my skills, but I guess I have to pick and choose how I spend my time.

As for the rulebook writing, I have been offering help with proofreading and editing documents for other people from time to time, though probably not as much as I really should.  Still, this has ended up with me getting my name as a credit into at least a couple of published games and built up a few brownie points, as well as getting me some valuable experience, so it has been a useful exercise.

Finally, what is probably my biggest news of the last year: I am in negotiations with a publisher regarding one of my games (and some other possible opportunities).  Nothing is signed as yet, but I have my fingers crossed.  In the meantime, I'm not going to broadcast details, but with a little luck I'll be able to make some sort of an announcement in the near future.