Nearly Ready to Invade Expo

It's just a few days until UK Games expo, and I need to get my biggest objective for the event sorted: stabilise a prototype of Invaded that can be run at the Playtest Zone with innocent, unsuspecting members of the gaming public.  That means I need to be reasonably confident that it will play OK and not collapse under its own weight.  It doesn't have to be perfect, of course, but I don't want to waste the valuable time of the playtesters.

So, after my recent frenzy of high speed testing and development, the latest revision of Invaded was a fairly small change in time to get to a Playtest UK meetup in Oxford (at the Thirsty Meeples boardgame cafe) where I played the game with a couple of fellow designers.

Here we are about 2/3 of the way through a test game of Invaded,
with the colonial forces getting pretty well advanced and starting to launch attacks.
The upshot is that we identified a few problems, which were mostly things that I already knew about or suspected, and weren't show-stoppers.  We had some useful discussion about possible ways to fix things and additions to the game to fill gaps, and also noted a few minor things that could do with being tidied up.  Overall, though, I am getting more confident that the core of the game is looking at least OK.

Given all that, I'm planning to make a couple of small changes and then spend the next couple of days getting the prototype ready.  If a couple of plays with fresh people don't show up anything structurally wrong I plan to move on to looking at those gaps I mentioned (and it may turn out they are not really a major issue) and then move on to an exciting new stage of playtesting: checking balance and looking for interesting ways to break the game.

As for UK Games Expo, that is, as you may know, at the Birmingham NEC from the 2nd to the 4th June.  I have so far booked two playtesting sessions: 14:30-16:00 on Friday, and 10:00-11:30 on Sunday.  I will probably leave it at just those sessions, though I will also be volunteering at the Playtest Zone at various other times, so please drop by and say hello -- and play a prototype, ideally!


Intense Invaded Iteration

One of the big challenges in game design is getting playtesting done, particularly early on in the process.  You need to get people willing to sit down with an incomplete and unpolished game, and you need to be able to get feedback from them, analyse that feedback, and use it to improve the game.  Actually, some of the best feedback is gained simply by watching the players (Are they bored? Are they misunderstanding parts of the rules?...), but discussions can also yield really useful input, though it is not always useful in the way that the testers think.  For instance, testing a fairly early version of Boogie Knights resulted heaps of suggestions for the "one little thing" that would make the game better; in the end, most of the issues prompting those suggestions were addressed by removing a whole load of cruft from the game instead.

Anyway, after a number of weeks of struggling to get much testing done, I've just had a really intense few days of work on Invaded and now I need to focus on pulling together all the elements that have been thrown up into the air.
The end of the latest playtest with three players.

It all started last Thursday.  I have a friend at work who is also a neophyte game designer and we have recently started to use occasional lunch breaks to test each other's designs.  The available time is limited, but I think we're both finding it useful.  This particular Thursday we got to play a few turns of Invaded to shake out a few cobwebs, and based on that I made a couple of minor tweaks to the rules before...

The same evening I had a chance to head off to meet up with another, far more experienced, game designer who had agreed to meet me in a pub in a town about half way between our homes.  This game revealed that the resource production was a bit too free and confirmed that my simple market mechanism was just taking up space without adding anything of worth to the game.  We also figured out that one of the big problems with colonial movement would be helped by giving a faster flow of reinforcements to the landing site, plus that the gaining of objectives might be better with a set of face-up cards available for anyone to claim.

All this was good stuff and left me with a couple of days to make some minor changes to components and a few tweaks to the rules before it was in to London for the monthly Sunday Playtest UK meetup at the Jugged Hare.

I joined in to make up a four player game with some other designers who managed to inflict some significant damage on the state of the game, most notably managing to totally rip the heart out of the objectives system, which basically meant the victory conditions would need fundamental reworking.  A major part of this was the observation that the objective cards just didn't seem to fit the thematic structure of simply trying to not get consigned to history in the face on an invasion.  Oh, and the resource economy still had huge problems.

At this point my morale was beginning to suffer as I was starting to wonder if I would ever get the game into a decent form, but the (very welcome but sometimes hard to take) criticisms were counterbalanced by an almost universal support for the game's concept.  Basically, everyone seems to like the idea, so all I need to do is make a game that lives up to the promise.  Easy, right?  Nope.

However, something that has come from a few playtesters is that some people like the idea that you start the game in a pretty strong position and then have to manage your decline so you survive better than anyone else.  This seems to run counter to a philosophy that I would usually want to follow that it is nicer and more fun to manage a building process than demolition.  And yes there are many counter-examples, but it's a decent rule of thumb.  Maybe if I just run with the idea of "get smacked down more slowly than your rivals", that might put some people off but would be a distinctive feature of the game.  The theme suggests that this is what is going on, so why am I fighting it?

I had arranged for a couple of friends to visit for playtesting the next day, so I did a bit of editing files on my return from London, and then after work on Monday I was frantically printing, cutting and sleeving cards for the next test.

And, of course, the next test was full of more problems.  I still hadn't got the resource system right: I was using a push-your-luck mechanism which was fun for many people but annoying for others and was a bit incongruous.  Players ended up with too many units and not enough to do after a few rounds, and the colonial forces were really vulnerable to a concerted attack.

So, the game still sucked and I had got yet another playtest booked for the next day.  The plan was to do several tests to help me get the game into a decent shape for a public playest at UK games expo at the beginning of June.  At this stage, though, I was wondering what I was doing to myself.

One more revision, fitting around work and sleep as best I could.  This time I totally changed the resource gathering system, reduced the limit of the number of villages and warbands that could be built, and split colonial moves and attacks into separate decks so that the regiments would move every time all the players have taken an action, but only attack after all player actions are completed.


Well, it is still a long way from perfect, but the Tuesday test was the first time I didn't end up with my head proverbially in my hands.  It actually felt like a game this time.  One with holes, too much slack time, and plenty of inconsistencies, but at last I think I have the foundation on which I can build.

The next time I am hoping to playtest is likely to be Sunday, so I have a few days to get things together and see what I can do about some of the problems from Tuesday, but at last I think I am on the way.  Until the wheels fall off again...

I'd like to take a moment here to thank all the brave people who have helped me so much over the last few days.  Phil T, Dave M, Fabio, Bez, Dean, Alice, Phil W, Barry, Fran, and Lee, ladies and gentlemen, I salute you all!

Now, back to the grindstone...


Don't Despair Despite the Devastating Dirigible Demolition

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy.  So it is with initial prototypes and playtesters.  Or it is with mine, anyway.

I've just had an evening with one of my long-suffering playtesters, trying out the Dirigible battle game, which is really intended to be for higher player counts, but I want the game to be at least reasonably amusing for two.  The session started out deeply flawed (in other words it totally sucked at first), but we made a few tweaks during play and ended up with something that I think is certainly better.
Some point blank unpleasantness.
The major positive I had was that the way players get a random hand of attack cards (each allows an attack in one of six possible directions) seems to be a real feature of the game, as you manoeuvre to get into position to make best use of them.  The huge down side at first was that movement of the other players is just so unpredictable that nobody was going to actually land a hit on anyone.

The main tweak we made was to have simultaneous selection of movement and attack cards, as was the original plan, but then to resolve these all sequentially with a different first player each time, and allow you to choose to use one or both of your movement card's actions: speed and rudder changes.  This resulted in making the airships a lot more controllable and adding a lot more of a tactical dimension to the game as you manoeuvre, trying to be ready for the phases when you will be moving ahead of your opponent.

The down side to this was that, with attacks automatically hitting as per the original rules, there just seemed too much control.  We didn't try this, but my feeling is that a simple die roll for an attack would fit in nicely here.  Attack dice are a familiar trope of combat games, so wouldn't feel out of place here, and a simple rule like, "roll higher than the range on a d6" would probably be a good thing to try first.

Anyway, with the re-jigged rules we actually had a bit of fun here, despite the card texts not being quite right any more.  My next pass will involve reworking those cards (especially the damage cards, which need changes to compensate for the changes), then testing again on a small scale with die rolls for attacks.  Then, with a little luck, I'll be able to get enough testers together to try this out as a team game.


Dirigible Derring Do

It's funny how ideas come along sometimes.  A few days ago I watched a video review of a game called Zephyr: Winds of Change, and when I managed to stop fixating on the game's cover art (is it just me, or is it absolutely dreadful?) I ended up thinking about airship combat.  Zephyr is a cooperative game, with what looks like pretty abstracted combat, but I was thinking about competitive games.

Then something ticked off in my head.  There is an old, classic game called Sopwith, originally published in the 1970's, and which appears to have been out of print for a very long time now.  This is a shame.  It's one of those games that I would love to get hold of one day, but when copies are available they tend to be really rather expensive.  Anyway, the core of Sopwith is simultaneous action programming by putting markers on action spots behind privacy screens, then resolving the programs when everyone is done.  This works brilliantly as a team game when everyone is trying to avoid shooting their team mates by accident.  Sopwith has been a popular game for postal play, and you can see a set of rules here if you are interested.

Anyway, airships and Sopwith-style action programming...  What's not to like?  Inspiration struck and I got to constructing a prototype...

A solo playtest of a one-on-one battle which didn't go quite as planned.

I seem to be going through a bit of a purple patch for creating initial prototypes when I should probably actually be refining existing games, but I haven't had many playtesting opportunities lately, so this is how I manage to keep myself in the game, as it were.

So the game that has the working title of 'Dirigible' has a hex board (no features on it as yet), little airship standees (I could have used something else as a proxy, but I fancied making these), a small board for each player on which to record speed, steering and damage withstood, a pile of cards for selecting manoeuvres. and a pile of cards for selecting attacks.  I have enough components for two players at the moment, though I'm planning to go up to six.  Each round, you choose three movement cards from a hand of five, and an attack card to go with each from a selection of attack and no-attack cards, then the whole lot gets resolved afterwards, going through the three moves in turn.

So far I have tested solo, playing two airships battling each other, and it turns out that it is really easy to screw up and fly off the board -- which I have decided is a way of being defeated.  I'm sure that if multiple players each controlled one airship they wouldn't make as many mistakes as I did, but even so, it is very easy to get things wrong.

As a result of my early testing, I have decided two major things.  The first is that the size of the board I was using was just not big enough for the necessary manoeuvring, so I have made an extra couple of board sections to improve on that.  The second thing is a bit more fundamental: it is pretty difficult to plan across three action phases, and while this may make for an interesting challenge for players, I would rather the game was more accessible, so future tests will involve selecting one move and attack at a time.  This does move things even further from the original inspiration of the Sopwith game, but that is not a bad thing: I can base a game on something else, but if I slavishly adhere to the original I am not really creating anything new, I need to just go where the playtest data takes me...


Hares FTW!

The votes are in, and I am delighted to say that I won the March 24 hour contest!  OK, so there weren't many votes this time, but there rarely are.  Thanks to everyone who took part and everyone who voted -- and especially to Kai for organising it.
Thanks to Kai Scheuer for running the contest and for the "prize" image.
So, I'm planning to do some more work on March Hares and tidying up a few loose ends in the rules, then maybe it could be my next entry on Board Game Geek as a free print & play game using Josh's awesome artwork.