2018-08-14

Craggy Components are Ready!

Finally! Over the last month or two my progress on my various projects has been slower than I would like, and hanging over me in particular has been actually writing a rulebook for my intended entry for this year's print and play wargame design contest on Board Game Geek.  This was the one thing holding me back from moving the game to the "Components Ready" stage of the contest, which means that all elements of the game are, at some level, ready for someone to try them out.

As of this evening, though, I managed to complete a push to get a full draft of that rulebook written and uploaded for people to access.  I need to add illustrations and examples, and I am certain that parts of the rules will be unclear or badly phrased -- and that is before we even get into changes that need to be made due to testing -- but it's at least something.  You have to start somewhere.

If you are interested in finding out more, here is the work in progress thread on Board Game Geek, which includes download links for the rules and other components.

2018-08-06

Tricky Business

I recently saw a conversation on Twitter about "WTF is a trick taking game anyway?" (and similar discussions there and elsewhere over the years) and it was really one of those things that reminds me that everyone has different knowledge and experience. Even within hobby gaming, not everyone understands things the same way. I was brought up regularly playing games with standard playing cards, including several variants of the Whist family, the archetypal trick taking games, so the concepts of tricks, trumps, bids, and keeping score on a pad of paper, are just totally natural to me. It is easy for me to forget that other people aren't used to this sort of game.

5♠ was led...

So, what actually is a trick taking game?  Well, it can vary, but in general...
  • Most trick taking games are played using cards, and almost certainly usually using a standard 52 card, 4 suit deck (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs).
  • Players usually have a "hand" of cards, dealt randomly from the deck.
  • A "trick" usually consists of each player selecting and playing one card from their hand. In most of these games, this play happens one at a time, in sequence around the table.
  • Most trick taking games pay attention to the suit of the cards, and you very often have to play the same suit as is lead by the first player, if you can.
  • Somebody wins the trick, very often the winner is the player who played the highest ranked card of the suit led by the first player.
  • Many trick taking games have a "trump" suit, which is usually interpreted as a suit which beats any other suits in a trick. There are many variations on how a trump suit is decided.
  • There is usually a scoring system, generally based on either the number of tricks each player wins, or the actual cards that are won in tricks.  Usually a full game consists of several "hands" where cards are shuffled and dealt afresh each time, and scores are recorded and added up to determine the overall winner.
Over and above all that common stuff (and, for each of those points, I feel certain you could find something that could be described as a trick taking game that breaks the "rule"), there are loads of variants that crop up more or less commonly.  For instance, in the game that I was taught as Slippery Anne (better known to the world as Hearts), the objective is to take the fewest tricks and score the fewest points, but you get a huge bonus if you manage to take all of the tricks. A load of games (in particular, several Whist games) have players bidding for how many tricks they think they can make, and score according to how well they achieve their "contract", 

There are plenty of really cool aspects to this style of game. For me, I love the aspects of figuring out what cards other players have, of trying to "finesse" to win more tricks or points than my hand might naturally be worth, the tension of playing out a hand, and the pace and tempo of most of these games when they are played by experienced players.

Thinking about this reminds me that I have never designed a trick taking game (other than by stretching the definition of the genre to the point of breaking), not even just applying a skin to an existing game, so I think it is about time I changed that and tried making one.  Challenge on...

To be continued...

2018-07-30

Four Get Drafty in Pimlico

Last month's Sunday playtest meetup in London got cancelled due to a clash with Fathers' Day, and this month's got rescheduled as its planned date coincided with the Men's Association Football World Cup final, but I was fortunately able to make the new date. Of course, the new date clashed with a big cycling event in the city, which caused travel chaos for some, but seven of us made it, then an eighth, and then a ninth, so all was well.

Before getting to my own game, I got to play a couple of games of a light card game, which is so close to being something I would buy in a heartbeat, and once through of a midweight Euro game, which I had tried an earlier iteration of, and is well on its way to being a great candidate for my game shelf too.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing how both of these turn out.

My game for the day was Drafty Valley, which I had tested a few days earlier as a two player game, and saw that the latest version appeared to be working OK, but seemed weak with only two players. I wanted to see how it fares with more, so was just sitting down as part of a group of three, when a fourth player arrived, making the setup perfect from my point of view.

Getting close to the end of the game.
"What's that you've got there, Grandad?" asks one of the players,
spotting that I am using an old camera rather than my phone.
So, what did I learn? Well, the objective cards are still well out of line, but this is not news -- I haven't actually changed them in the last couple of iterations. More specifically, though, there is currently a class of objective where you just need to have a particular board state (like have roads connecting certain features), and this sat poorly with the players, who all wanted to see objectives that they achieved themselves.

I got some interesting feedback on the market very quickly, and all three of my testers objected to how it worked. The idea is that there is a marker for each good on a number track, and when you buy a good, you pay the amount to the left of the marker, and then move the marker left, which usually increases the value of that good.  Selling works the same, but moving to the right, lowering the value.  The feedback I received was that this seemed unintuitive, and the price should just be the value that the marker is on, and then the marker should adjust accordingly.

This is an odd one, as the players were unanimous in this opinion, and they are clearly correct in their opinion that they found it unintuitive (a playtester's perception of something is always correct, even if the conclusion they come to is arguable), but I still disagree that their model would be better than the one that exists.  From a thematic point of view I would argue that it makes sense that a merchant would buy something at one price, and sell it at a different (higher) one, and I like this model, so I'll stick with it for a little while longer, but if feedback keeps pointing this way I will get ready to slay this particular darling.  It may well be that I just need to make the chart clearer, and describe the values on either side of the marker as the asking price and the offering price, respectively.  We'll see...

On a related matter, shipping (being able to sell a big bulk of goods at a single, often lower, price than the general market offers) was barely used and seemed to be unincentivised (ick, that's a horrible, jargony word), in part due to one player taking control of the port at the start of the game.  I need to have a think about this (and if it is an action that actually adds to the game), and am considering rolling the shipping action into the same action card as the market trading, as they are thematically related, and reducing the number of cards seems cool to me.  Perhaps a better explanation and graphical presentation may help.

There was also a general feeling that people wanted houses to belong to them, rather than just belonging to the board, as with most of the game elements. I think that this is a pity, as I like the general theme of the kingdom being developed as a whole rather than it being about individual players, but I can see where they are coming from, and I think I will have to at least experiment with this, and we talked through a couple of ideas of how this could work.

The final major point, I think, was one that tallies with feedback from a couple of earlier playtests: choosing an action card should give you a decent bonus for choosing it, along the lines of the classic Puerto Rico. So, for instance, if I choose the market trading action, I might be able to do more trades than you are permitted.

The overall theme of feedback from this session was that many aspects of the game just didn't line up with the expectations of the players.  Is this because I have made poor design decisions and need to get more sensible, or because I am trying something different and interesting, and should persist, and maybe figure out better ways to present these aspects? I'm hoping that it's not entirely the former, but even if it is, then I can learn from that.  I will need to reflect more on this but bear that question in mind as I go through the next stages of development.

In the short term, though, my main priorities are to rework the objective cards pretty much from the ground up and look at the "leader bonus" issue.  I think this will almost certainly result in other changes (for instance, I am having a bit of an urge to make a new board, and there's that house ownership thing...) but I have a focus and we'll just see how things go.

2018-07-19

Action Valley

Previously in the chronicles of Drafty Valley: I made a game where players draft actions each round and most of those actions trigger different variants of drafting mechanics which result in players producing and selling goods and developing land in search of profit.  Testing suggested that most of the game's structure and flow had promise, but the balance was far enough off to get in the way of testing, and some aspects of the game proved overwhelmingly frustrating for some players.

The game has been on the shelf since UK Games Expo, while I thought about other things for a while, but now it's time to have another run at it.

I know the balance of the objectives in the game is terrible at the moment, but I decided to focus on something else for the moment: the core of the game, the action cards. The way the game has worked so far is that each round there is a selection of over-sized cards on display, each allowing an action, including claiming locations, producing resources, and building things. At the start of the round, each player chooses a card, and they get to take the action first, followed by everyone else. At the end of the round, action cards are replenished from a deck.

It feels a bit weird putting a pic before I've explained the context,
but these are the new action cards.
This proved problematic in a few ways, including:
  • I thought it would be interesting for players to discover the available actions as they go along, but this proved almost universally unpopular as players usually want to know what options will come up in the future as a guide for their choices.
  • Some rounds there were poor combinations of actions available, and often players ended up having little or nothing to do on a turn and not much they could have done about it.
  • The random supply of actions sometimes meant that turn order was the most important factor in the game, and sometimes irrelevant, leading to frustration.
  • Many of the available actions were useful at some stage of the game (for some players) but utterly useless at others. More frustration.
So, what I have done is to strip the small deck of action cards back to just seven of them, mostly with options on them, combining multiple former-cards into one.  I have also decided to not bother putting the full rules for each action on the cards, so they are now down to standard card size, meaning that there can be a row of all of the cards visible at once, without requiring an enormous table.

The mechanism for managing action cards is that at the start of the round, each player selects a card, using the "Small World" style mechanism where you drop a coin onto each card that you skip from one end of the row -- we'll say the left.  If you choose a card with coins on, you get to keep those coins.  Cards slide along to the left as gaps appear.  Then, when actions are resolved, the cards return to the right hand end of the row.

This way, every action is available every round, but the actions which were used last round are more expensive, and ignored actions will gradually become more valuable, until someone can't resist the cash payout. 

Which leaves me at a point where I need to playtest again. I've been doing badly at getting prototypes to the table lately, but am working on getting things going again, so it shouldn't be long before this gets in front of other people...

2018-07-09

24 Hours of Heat

Another month, another 24 hour game design challenge. This time the requirement for the contest was the word "heat", which seemed apt given the heatwave we've been seeing recently in the UK and other parts of Europe.  I wasn't really planning to do this one (it's quite a busy time at the moment from a family point of view, with school and music related demands), but I couldn't help but thinking about phrases, puns, and cliches related to heat.  When my brain stumbled across "packing heat" I couldn't let go, and ended up thinking about gangsters going on holiday and packing their luggage, including "heat" alongside their general holiday supplies.

This is a dangerous situation and I spent the next couple of days with the idea bouncing around my head. The rules of the contest are that you can't write anything down until you start your 24 hours, which makes it difficult to put ideas on hold, and it got to the point where I just had to do something.  Luckily on Saturday I had an evening to myself, and on Sunday all I needed to do was accompany my wife and daughter to a Race For Life event, then get the daughter to her dance exam in the afternoon. It would be fine.

I think my prototypes have benefited greatly from my recent acquisition of a colour printer.

By the end of the evening I had made a set of components (the classic deck of 54 cards -- handy because it is a reasonable 6 sheets for a print & play set, and also pretty much coincides with a standard sheet of cards at a proper card manufacturer) and the basic rules written down. To be honest I had been more than a bit woolly about specific rules in my initial planning, but working on it broke the game down into two phases: one where you pack your luggage (collect/play cards) and one where some twiddling about occurs and scoring takes place. The idea was that you needed a set of holiday items in order to finish the game, but you won by having the most money.

I had already tried out other approaches in my head: top were some kind of push your luck system, or something where you could bluff about what was in your luggage and challenge each other.  Neither of these really crystalised though.

I didn't manage to get "real person" playtesting this time, but did some solo testing, with me playing multiple hands of cards at the same time, and this was effective in trying out a few options and seeing how different ways of playing with the components worked out.  In the end, my plans for the first half of the game survived with minor modifications, and the second half got changed quite significantly into a form of trick taking game using the luggage (cards) you had collected in the first half.

Achievement unlocked: my first trick taking game. Sort of.

Behold! The final card types. For now, at least. 
So, despite the hot, sticky weather we are having here, I did manage to get the first draft of another game sorted, formatted for print & play, and made available. It's always a good feeling to make that happen, even if that is all this game will ever be. Hopefully I'll get a chance to give it a proper test soon and decide if it has a future in any form.

If you are interested, my entry post for the contest is here, and includes download links for the rules and cards.

2018-06-30

Board of Craghold

This week I have been spending most of my design time working on The Battle for Craghold, my planned entry for the wargame design contest on BGG. I managed a solo playtest of the current version of the game and found some issues to work on, got to work on the rulebook, and made some more progress with the board.

Absolutely not final, but starting to feel like a proper game board.
So, the board is now at the level where it is substantially done, but needs more than a little tidying up, and may need significant changes based on playtest results, but it at least looks like a (rather amateurish) board that could be used for playing on.

Creating the board has been an interesting learning process, which involved a lot of points where I should have probably done something different, like doing a lot more of the work in a vector art package rather than going more or less straight to the GIMP for painting and the likes.

So, most of the work here was done with the GIMP, which is pretty much an open source analog of Photoshop.  I don't have training in using this sort of software, and the only experience I have is for very basic work, so using a big, powerful tool for a pretty big project was a bit daunting.  Recent experience, though, has taught me that building a project in a series of layers is really effective and allows for a lot of flexibility, so I went all-in on this. So the grassy background is one layer, the hex grid is another, the city walls yet another, and so on. Then I can tweak the composite image with comparative ease, upgrading and replacing elements whenever I need to, for instance. A side benefit of this is that I can easily make two versions of the map: the one pictured above, and one without the green grass or the grey city background, which would thus be much more printer-friendly, with just a few clicks.

This board is nearly A2 size (it's about 54cm x 34cm), so needs to be broken down to print on A4 sheets, partly because the contest rules demand that you mustn't need to print anything larger than A4 or US letter size, but mainly because I can't print larger than that myself and there's no point me designing prototype components that I can't use.  This was a bit of a challenge until I found a handy tool that works on my Linux computer: PosteRazor, which can take an image file (I exported my working image as a jpeg) and output it as a set of PDFs with configurable borders and overlaps between the tiles.

So far I have been slack at writing up a rulebook for this game.  Even in the early stages, with rules constantly in flux, writing down rules can be very helpful.  You can always change things as you go, and depending on the tool you use for writing rules (I use Google Docs for working documents) you may have a versioning system built in, so it can be easy to roll back to earlier versions.  Up until now my written rules have just been a list of combat factors (you get bonus dice in combat for these reasons...), so I have started working on turning this into a full draft of the rules. Still a lot to do there, but it's now high on my priorities.

The other priority I have is a relatively straightforward reworking of the unit tokens, adjusting the quantities of some of them and adding a "leader" unit for each side in the battle, which will link in to most of the "special power" actions that I am starting to introduce. More on those another day...

2018-06-17

Back to the Track

It seems to be developing into an annual tradition, posting each summer about making a game based on the Corlea trackway in County Longford, Ireland.  So, this year's post comes from a little thinking about the game and reworking the prototype based on notes from the last playtest (nearly a year ago) and the intervening time spent away from it, thinking about other things.

So far, 2018 seems to have been a bit of a year of going back to some of the old projects and applying refreshed (and more experienced) brain cells to some old problems that needed some new insight. I'm totally standing by this approach.  Some other designers seem to be very good at concentrating on one design and iterating until it is done.  As the last few years of posts on this blog attest, I tend to flit around, concentrating on one or two projects for a while, then moving on to others.  Some games get revisited and progressed later, and some just get buried and forgotten.  If I needed to rely on game design for income (and thankfully I don't) I might need to work differently, but for now this seems an effective way for me to keep moving.

About the middle of the game, with a couple of fresh trackway sections built. Green to play...

My latest revision of Corlea includes the following changes:
  • I have dropped the "recruit workers" and "produce food" actions, and combined the remaining "village" actions (train workers, craft offerings, and king's favour, which all provide cards that might help you) into a single action, while keeping them as separate locations for the purposes of assigning worker cubes.
  • As a result of this, I have reduced the number of action spaces on the trackway board segments from eight to six.
  • Instead of having a "shop front" of available cards when you use the village actions, you draw a number of cards from the relevant deck and select one to keep. The number of cards you draw is equal to the number of worker cubes you have in that space, so the more you take the action, the more control you have over its outcome.
  • To control the difficulty (number of workers required) of each of the scoring actions, I am now using a die (d6) for each action location. If there are enough workers, the location is scored and the die rerolled; otherwise you get a small individual score and reduce the value on the die.
  • And there are a load of changes to cards, basically to take into account this set of changes, as many of the old cards no longer make sense.
Having diligently worked these changes into a new prototype, I sat down to run a solo playtest of the game, with me controlling each of four different "virtual players" to at least exercise the mechanisms and see how things went before I try putting the game in front of real people. A game like this is reasonably easy to play solo in this way: whose turn is next is immediately apparent from the state of the board, and what limited hidden information exists is not game breaking if I know all of it.

Half an hour or so later and I had...

Oh God oh God oh God oh God... This game is terrible! I suck at game design! It's never going to work. Why do I bother? Sob sob...

OK, so it's not quite as bad as that, but it really isn't any good as things stand. The thing is that this game is very much in the "Euro game" school of design, a style of game that centres on resource management, creating efficiencies, controlling areas of influence, indirect player competition, and so on. This sort of game usually builds on a number of mechanical systems which lock together to make a machine that players each influence parts of, and much of the engagement of the game should come from figuring out how to interact with the parts of this machine that you are working with better than the other players manage with their parts. I'm aiming at Corlea being towards the simpler end of the spectrum of games along these lines, but as it goes at the moment, player choices don't seem particularly meaningful or interesting, and often the machine simply stutters and stalls.

From what I can make out, this is something that hits all boardgame designers, pretty much all the time. The trick is figuring out either how to move forward, or how to get over the sunk cost of getting the game this far and give up on it, either temporarily or permanently.

I think that there is enough in the game that is usable, and I don't really have experience developing this type of game, even though I love playing them, so I am choosing to push onwards for now. The key mechanical problems at the moment, as I see them are:

  • While players should have to work to move resources through the system, right now it is all just too slow.
  • The village actions provide handy bonuses, but right now the opportunity cost to go for them are just too great in comparison to the benefits.
  • The game start is a bit slow, so it takes a few turns for things to get moving, and that first part is tedious, so it should be skipped.
  • It's not clear that there are any real strategic decisions to make.
The first three of these points should be relatively easily addressable, but the fourth could be a big problem if things don't change when I deal with the others.  So I will have a go at dealing with the issues I have identified so far and see where that takes me.  


2018-06-11

A New Style of Boogie

Based on feedback from a few plays of Boogie Knights at UK Games Expo (and, frankly, long before, but I'd not really faced up to it properly), it was clear that, if I wanted to get Boogie Knights running properly, I needed to make some more changes. The biggest issue that kept coming up is that at some point in the game, getting more equipment tends to become uninteresting, and there just don't seem to be enough challenge cards to go around at that point.

At UKGE various suggestions were thrown about, including having separate decks to draw from, so you could choose if you want equipment or challenges. That has some potential, but the idea that I ended up getting stuck in my mind was for multi-use cards. This is potentially a bit jargony, so the idea is that a given card has more than one way you can use it, rather than having separate card types for separate functions in the game. So, in this case, you could have cards that can be used as equipment, or as challenge cards (or other actions), and you choose which option to use. With cards set up like that, it should be possible to design the game so that in any hand of cards you always have options for something sensible to play, regardless of the game state.

After a few days of pondering I gave it a go.

Not quite what I ended up with, but very close.
Action icons in the squares, challenge bonuses in the yellow strip.
It took some thinking and fiddling around before I decided that I would have three copies of each "costume" (a kinda-matching set of head, body and legs equipment, which is how I created them), and add an action icon to each card to indicate the alternate use for each card.  The three copies of each equipment card would then have variations for different actions available.  The way I have set things up doesn't make each card unique (though I could have done that), but there aren't many duplicates: we have 48 different cards in the 54 card deck.

I settled on four different actions: the two types of challenge (disco and combat), a "tricks" action (swap cards on the table -- not quite as good as the previous iteration's dirty tricks card), and a "discard" (allowing you to drop as many cards as you like before replenishing). I think the discard may be too weak, but we'll see in play. The thing is that I can tweak the actual effects of the actions without having to modify the components, which I like. The distribution of the icons is such that there are rather more of the challenge actions than the others, hopefully meaning that play will be guided more towards challenges, which is what the game should really be about.

As part of this, I decided to drop the "kit inspection" cards, which were a way to steadily nudge the game towards an end, but didn't really fit properly in this iteration. These cards have been a part of the game I liked a lot from early in its development, but in the spirit of "kill your darlings", out they go. They can always be reintroduced later if the game needs them.

Print... cut... sleeve... et voila!

One of the results of this round of changes is that I have greatly simplified the game setup, which previously had multiple steps to defend against having an unplayable hand at the start of the game. I managed to knock a couple of paragraphs or so out of the setup instructions, taking them from 252 to 139 words.  Word count (or lack of it) is not the most critical metric of a rule set, but for a light game, having short rules is a huge advantage, and it felt like a really positive payoff for this revision.

As I write this, I have not yet playtested this version of the game, but will hopefully get a chance to do so in the next few days. I'm sure something will be wrong with it, but I have a feeling we are moving in the right direction again.

If you would like a look at the current state of the game, print and play files are available...


Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

2018-06-04

Back From the Expo

So, another year's UK Games Expo has been and gone, and this time I traveled up the day before it started, thanks to a generous lift from a friend (thanks, Matt!), got checked into my hotel, and then wandered over to the NEC where the set-up was under way.
A view of Hall 1, mid-setup, from the Playtest Zone balcony. 
After a little help on the Cubicle 7 stand and then in the Playtest Zone, I headed back to the hotel, where I stumbled across a group of lovely people who let me play a few games with them for the evening. I seem to manage this with a different group each year, somehow finding a really relaxed and friendly group each time, and it is one of the things that makes this event so special for me. It was also lovely to catch up with these folk at breakfast each morning and occasional other times through the weekend.

On Friday I worked as a volunteer in the Playtest Zone for the morning, then had my first ever "formal" pitch meeting with a publisher in the afternoon, which was terrifying but didn't need to be, as the publisher is an absolutely lovely fellow who was easy to talk to, and was very supportive and interested in what I had to say. The outcome of this was that they won't be publishing Invaded, which is the game I was presenting, but I am welcome to pitch other games in the future, which seems a good result, and I got some very helpful suggestions.

Friday evening included the designer-publisher speed-dating event. There were something like fifteen publishers there, but twenty designers, and twelve time slots for pitches, which sounds like a horrendous mismatch, but it worked out that the designers each ended up seeing nine or ten publishers, with a couple of "break" slots in between, and it was organised so that designers mostly saw publishers that were more likely to be interested in their games. For instance, I didn't get to see the publisher of party games, who definitely wouldn't have been interested in Invaded.

By Saturday morning, after a couple of exchanges of emails based on meetings at the speed-dating, one publisher had asked for a copy of the prototype (I had a spare copy so was able to accommodate that) and another had asked for a meeting to try actually playing Invaded.

After my Saturday morning spell of volunteering I was able to quickly eat a sandwich before meeting with the publisher who wanted to play Invaded. We found a table and had a full, three-player game that demonstrated well some of the features of the game, but fell flat overall (quickly make some notes about what went wrong -- mostly that the game went too quickly and was entirely peaceful). This publisher was very interested if the issues that showed up could be addressed, and gave some really useful feedback.

Drafty Valley in play. Hand modelling by Jen.
Continuing another busy day I got back to the Playtest Zone in time for a testing slot of my own, running a play of Drafty Valley. This being something of a prime time, I hadn't even finished setting up when I had two players asking to play, and we were just starting off when another two turned up, so we reset and got going with a four player game.

So the headline news was that the game was horribly broken. One player in particular seemed to be  getting a bit frustrated by the imbalances between the action options and the objectives. I need to do a massive reworking of the game before another playtest, but I have a list of points to address and some ideas on how to progress, so I can work with that over the next week or two.

Alongside the problems that were identified, there was something totally awesome. I managed to explain the game in about five minutes, and then stepped back and managed to watch the players play the game on their own, with only a few clarifications and corrections needed here and there. I don't think I have ever spoken less during a playtest. This was an amazing feeling, and I'm holding onto that bit of win with both hands.

Saturday was rounded off with an actual sit-down dinner with some friends (some old, some new) followed by a great session of gaming (some published games, some prototypes).

On Sunday morning I had another playtesting session booked, which I had been intending to use for Drafty Valley, but given the previous day's test I felt I would not gain very much by playing that again before an overhaul, so on a whim I pulled out Boogie Knights, to take a fresh look at that.

The knights seem quite fighty at the moment, but there's that tutu...

We managed to play three games of Boogie Knights (twice with three players and once with four) in the ninety minute slot, and managed to get a good amount of feedback and insight in that time. The biggest problem at the moment is that the balance of equipment and challenge cards can be uneven, and particularly late in the game in three player games (less so with four, but it's still there) it can be frustrating to have too many equipment cards and not enough challenges.

Based on some of these discussions I am now thinking about ways to change the game to include multi-use cards (cards that work for both equipment and challenges, for instance). This would be a dramatic change to the game, but if I can figure this out it might just work. I have a couple of ideas...

The rest of Sunday was largely spent perusing the stalls around the two enormous convention halls with my wife and daughter, who had come up for the last day of the event, as they have done for the last few years. And then it was all over.

So, I've finally put my toe in the water as far as having meetings with publishers is concerned, and survived the crucible of the speed-dating. I probably wouldn't do the speed-dating again, but it was a valuable experience and helped get some dialogues going. Overall, I now feel a lot more confident about talking with publishers about my games, so will be sure to do more of that in the future. As always, the experience of being involved in the Playtest Zone was really rewarding, being an opportunity to meet and hang out with game designers ranging from first-timers to highly experienced, published veterans, who make up a great community.

Now I need to catch up on sleep, and get to work on implementing the changes I need to make to various games...

2018-05-24

Someone Swiped Right!

Last night I had a great bit of news before I went to bed: my sell sheet for Invaded was accepted for the Designer/Publisher Speed-Dating event at UK Games Expo. The problem is that my head was buzzing after that and it took me ages to get to sleep.

OK, so what is speed-dating in this context? This is something that has been going on at US games conventions for a few years now, and is basically a session where game designers have their prototype set out on a table, and then have a series of publishers parading through to receive a 5-minute pitch on each game.  I gather that the USian way of doing this is to have the designers pay a table fee and then they are off.  It's potentially pretty efficient for both designers and publishers as while there will be a lot of misses, you get through them quickly and can potentially set up deeper meetings for later with the most likely candidates.
Not the world's sexiest sell sheet, but it got me there.

This is the second year that UK Games Expo has hosted an event like this, and it runs a little differently in that the tables are free, but there is an application process where designers submit a sell sheet (basically a one-page summary of the key attractions of the game) for one of their games, and those sell sheets are distributed to a number of the publishers who are planning on attending.  The publishers vote for the games that interest them the most and the designers of the most popular games are invited to the event. I'm not sure of the precise procedure, but that's approximately it.

The benefit here is that, if you are invited to take part on the day, you know that at least some of the publishers in attendance have expressed interest in your game. There are bound to be some who have no interest at all, but just knowing that you have impressed someone, at least a bit, is a huge boost.

So, I'm in, and now I need to figure out my pitch. I'm currently in the process of reading the "Board Game Design Advice" book from the Board Game Design Lab and there is a lot of advice in there about making pitches. So far, some of the key points to remember are:

  • What is the key attraction (the hook) of the game? Focus on the experience.
  • What are the basics (play time, number of players, who you are, how you win, etc.)?
  • Treat the publisher like a person, have a conversation with them, and listen to what they say.
  • Be ready to show the key parts of game play, but don't get bogged down in detail, so probably show the mid-game, or the coolest bit.
With that in mind, I need to craft my pitch that I can do in, say, two or three minutes, so there is space for discussion.  I'm working on it, but have just a week to go...

2018-05-21

Jugged Valley

This weekend was time for another trip to London for playtesting, and I took with me my game which currently has the most momentum, Drafty Valley (for which I would like to find a new name!).

Now I've written that last sentence, I find myself thinking about momentum. It does seem to be that games vary in how much progress they are making at a given time, and that often, a game that has had some focus will keep moving onwards, with the occasional nudge from me to keep things going, until friction takes over and things grind to a halt. Earlier this year Craghold and Scurvy Crew were moving forward well. This time last year it was Invaded that was developing freely and quickly. Right now it is Drafty Valley.  The metaphor breaks down a little because usually a project seems to get moving on its own (specifically, I wake up one morning with an idea to try with a game, and it goes from there), but once it's moving, it keeps moving for a while. I'm not sure if my going-with-the-flow approach to game development is a particularly sensible one, but at least I do feel that I am making progress most of the time. Is that enough...?

Turns out that developing a location can get a little fiddly when there is a load of stuff on the board.

Anyway, back to the meetup. As planned, I left the prototype unchanged from the test I did at the Oxford meetup a few weeks ago (having not had a playtesting opportunity for the game in the meantime) and I played with the same rules, not changing setup, though happily I was able to get a 4-player game this time.

The first thing I noticed was that I got a lot of pushback (from one player in particular) against the idea of only explaining the parts of the game in the initial setup and allowing players to discover the game as they go. This doesn't really surprise me, as a lot of players do want to be competitive on their first play and want to know everything up front. I don't think this is really a problem: the game can be learnt in two ways: either with a short explanation and then find out the rest later, or by explaining everything up front. I think I'll keep things as they are and then I can use both approaches as fits the situation.

The game went well overall, though ran longer than I was hoping. We cut play off after an hour, with maybe ten or fifteen minutes left to go by my judgement.  Still, the players generally approved of the style of the game and the way it flowed.

That being said, there were, of course, problems.

What I think was the main issue was that the objectives didn't work right. The idea is that a pick-and-pass draft of objective cards (like in 7 Wonders or Sushi Go) takes place in fits and starts across the game and, while it worked a lot better than it did last month, it still left players waiting for information about what they should be trying to do in the game, and felt frustrating, and also (unlike the other actions) offered no advantage to the player who chooses the action card. A few ideas were thrown around, including possibly starting the game by getting everyone to draft a set of objectives, which could work but often makes for a horrible experience for inexperienced players. What I think I will try is to sacrifice a bit more table space by having a set of objectives on display, and then the "select objectives" action would involve taking cards from that display.  I may even go a little further and deal everyone a random card at the game start.

The other main issue that I want to consider this time is that the variability of which action cards are on display means that sometimes a player has first pick for that round, but there isn't really anything that they care greatly about, but other times a first choice is massively powerful.  This may be a little harder to fix, but I think that the solution is to make sure that every action is sufficiently interesting, or provides a really nice benefit to acting first with them (the actions resolve with whoever claimed the card going first). I will have to ponder on this one for a while...

So, that's what I will be doing in my spare time this week. I have decided that I will be taking Drafty Valley to test at the Playtest Zone at UK Games Expo in less than two weeks' time, so I need to deal with the biggest problems in the game so that I can make the most of the opportunity there.  Quite a bit of work to do...

Apart from my own game, I got to play a couple of others. The first was a football game (or soccer, if you are in the USA!) which isn't a theme that interests me at all, and felt a little fiddly, but had some really clever elements to it, so I suspect this will turn into something really cool for the right type of players.  The other game was a very early version of an experiment trying to make an accessible trivia-quiz game with a hidden traitor element; this wasn't really working, but led to some really interesting discussion, so it will be cool to see how things develop here.

2018-05-09

Ivory Eggs

To cut a long story short, for the last year or two there has been a print-on-demand game manufacturer based in the UK, Ivory Graphics, and I have been meaning to try them out for some time. Well, I have just done that, just using their card printing service to get a few sets of my 9-card "The Yolk's on You" made. I figured that if it all went wrong, it wouldn't cost me an enormous amount. The cards have just arrived, so here are some thoughts on the service...

First off, the service is reasonably quick. I ordered my deck of 54 cards on a Friday evening, and they were delivered on Saturday the following week -- though as nobody was in to receive the signed-for package, I had to wait a few more days before one of us (my wonderful wife, as it happens) was able to go to the post office to pick it up.

I was worried about how the colours would come out, as (slightly technical bit coming up...) their print process requires submitted files to use a CMYK colour space, whereas the tools available to me mostly use the RGB colour space, and I have no idea what the result of getting this wrong would be. After a little searching online I found a Linux command line incantation that, allegedly, allowed me to translate my PDF files to the correct colour space, so I used that, submitted the converted files, and hoped for the best.



One way or another, things turned out fine and the colours looked just as I wanted them, with a slightly glossy finish, and really clear and crisp edges. The only things wrong with the printed images were entirely due to the quality of the files I sent, so no complaints there.

The cards themselves are reasonably stiff and will be just fine to play with, though if you hold them up to the light you can see what is on the other side pretty clearly. In most playing situations this won't be a problem.

Price-wise, the cards cost £8.45 for the 54 card deck (pricing starts at 20 cards and you pay a per-card price beyond that), which isn't cheap, but seems reasonable for P-o-D. The shipping, at a fiver, was a little pricey, though I don't know how that scales for bigger orders.

So, overall I'm happy with these cards. The service also offers boxes, tokens, boards, rulebooks, and all sorts of other components, so you can in principle get them to make up a full boxed game for you, as long as your requirements aren't exotic, and you can even sell your complete games direct from their website. I'm not sure if I'll be making use of that of those options, but I may well go for the card printing again from time to time.

2018-05-08

Overhauling Craghold

Having decided what my priorities are in the lead-up to UK Games Expo, I have, of course, got immediately distracted by another project. In this case it is my intended entry for the wargame design contest on BGG, currently going under the working title of The Battle for Craghold.

To bring you up to speed, this is inspired by the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings, where the forces of Sauron are assaulting the stronghold of Minas Tirith. This was the starting point, but it is gradually moving away from its inspiration, though it will probably always be recognisable as such. The set up is that one player is defending a fortified city, along with a port city a short distance away. The second player has a powerful army, with much more easily available reinforcements than the defender, and they are trying to overwhelm the defenders and capture the city.

Actually the specifics of the victory conditions are still in flux, but part of the objectives for the defender has always been to move wagons of supplies from the port to the main city, so the attacker wants to disrupt this.

So far the two sides have simply been marked as yellow and black, mostly because I have a stock of black and yellow plastic stands that I can use as bases for stand-up unit markers.  I wanted to move on from this, partly so information is not solely encoded as colours, but mostly because I wanted to start giving some degree of character to the thus-far faceless factions.  A chat with an acquaintance on Twitter reminded me that I should take a look at the vector graphics program, Inkscape, so that's what I did.
Ta-daaaa!
An experienced graphic designer will see nothing exciting here, but I was really pleased that I figured out how to make the banner shape (draw a square, add some extra nodes to the shape, and pull them up to make the zig-zag -- thanks to my daughter, Miss B, who is becoming quite something of a vector artist, for advice), and then slap an image from game-icons.net onto it. Little advances like this with a new-to-me tool are a great way to build confidence.

So, I fed my new graphics into my nanDECK script (with a few other changes from the last iteration) to make a new set of unit pieces for my next playtest.
One of each of the units, designed to be folded in half to make a 2-sided token.
I think, in retrospect, I should have made the banners take up a little more space, but I'll bear that in mind for next time.  This always happens, thinking of a change to make right after completing something, but if I worried about that all the time I would either never have a complete prototype or I would run out of card and toner.  Thinking of which, designing components is only any good if those components become a physical thing that can be used, so I fired up the printer and got to chopping and folding until I had a pair of armies, ready to go.

Two armies, both alike in dignity...
I have also been working on a printable game board, which looks scrappy but is slowly getting less so, and will get on with an overhaul of the action cards too shortly. The plan is to share this iteration online, so I can hopefully get a little feedback.

The aim is to make a fantasy wargame, but at the moment there isn't much of a fantasy element here. However, this set should help me check that the core mechanisms are working OK, and then I have some ideas for the next iteration.  My current thought is to make the attackers into an undead army, and add in a necromancer, who acts as a mobile mustering/spawning point for attacking forces, which should be fun and make the pressure on the defenders really ramp up through play. Once I've tried that, then I expect to start working on tightening up the objectives and balance.

2018-05-04

Preparing for the Expo: 4 Weeks To Go

It's four weeks until the biggest event in the UK tabletop gaming calendar, UK Games Expo (1st to 3rd June), and again I am going for the full three days. Actually, I'm going up the day beforehand so I have an easier time on the Friday, and hopefully a bit of gaming the evening before the event starts for real. In the run-up there is a load of preparation I need to do.

The prototypes I'm planning on taking as they currently stand.
There may be some updates to come, but they'll look substantially like this.

So far, I have...

  • Written to a couple of publishers to see if I can arrange a meeting to discuss my games, particularly Invaded at the moment. I should probably contact at least a couple more, but we're getting to the point where it may be a bit late.  I'm keeping the number of pitches I am doing deliberately small at the moment, concentrating on people I think would be a decent fit for at least one of my games, as I want to just start learning how to do this sort of thing, and I am too cowardly to really jump in deep right away.  I have, however, heard back from the publishers I contacted so far, so fingers crossed.
  • Submitted a sell sheet (a 1-page document showing the key features and selling points for a game) for Invaded for consideration in the designer-publisher speed dating event. This allows designers to do 5-minute pitches to about a dozen publishers in close succession, but the designers invited to take part are selected by those publishers based on submitted sell sheets.  The application process is a little scary, but it does mean that, if you are selected, at least some of the publishers want to hear more about your game.  I decided to apply for this rather than for the "public pitch" session of the Wyvern's Lair as I think I would do better in this format.
  • Volunteered for a couple of shifts at the Playtest Zone (unless things change, I'll be there on Friday and Saturday mornings -- come and say hello!) and for one of the evening events. I've been doing this for the last couple of years, and found it very rewarding, being a great opportunity to meet loads of talented game designers and see a lot of awesome prototypes, even if I don't get to play many of them!
  • Booked my first playtesting slot for my own game: 15:00 to 16:30 on the Saturday, so please come by and play! The slot booking system opens early for volunteers, so we get first dibs on our first session, though there will be plenty more available for others when the bookings open up more generally in a few days. I have declared Scurvy Crew as the game I will be running, but I am starting to think about taking Drafty Valley now, as it has been developing well lately, and I would love to get some more feedback on it.
  • Booked accommodation (actually I did this several months ago), which is quite important!
  • Booked the necessary time off from work.

Things still to do include...

  • Check and update prototypes and rules for all the games I will be taking with me.
  • Create an up-to-date sell sheet for all the games I want people to know about.
  • If I'm going to try contacting any other publishers, I need to do it very soon indeed.
  • If I get selected for the speed dating, I'll really need to focus on that 5-minute pitch, and try not to panic. If I don't, then I still need to plan regular pitches.
  • Enter a couple of games into the "No Ship Maths Trade" that is going on. This is nothing to do with game design at all, but I have some games to get rid of and I have never tried maths trades before (briefly, they are a way to use a computer to set up trading rings so you can give a game to someone who wants it, and receive a game you want in return from someone entirely different), so I figure it's worth a go.
  • And, of course, pack all my necessary stuff and get up there.

I must be missing something, but I'm sure it'll all work out.

Let me know if you're going -- hopefully we'll be able to at least say hello some time.


2018-04-30

Drafty Meeples

As you probably know, I go to London most months for a Playtest UK meetup, but there is also a monthly session in my nearest large town, Oxford. The events being on Sunday evenings tends to make them less convenient for me, but I've made a few of these over the last couple of years, and this week I managed another.

Unfortunately this session had only four of us in attendance, but with a little negotiation and planning, all of us managed to get one of our games played -- though one was a longer game and we only managed a partial run of that.

I forgot to take a photo of my game in play, so here's a pic of a 4-player setup at home.
I had a two-player game of Drafty Valley (which will need a new name at some time), which was enough to give a reasonable test of the changes I made since its last trip to the table.  The game ran for about 45 minutes, starting with a very short explanation of just the rules active with the initial setup, and learning the rest as they came up, which is my planned teaching method for the game. The first few rounds were a bit slow as the new actions cycled through, but things sped up a lot and after the first time through the action deck the game was flying along nicely.  We even ended up with a nice, fairly tense ending, which was pleasing -- though probably more by luck than design.

Overall the changes I made seem to have moved the game in a positive direction, but the game start is still a little slow in terms of getting things on the board. This was actually feedback I got from the previous playtest, but I didn't really address this time. I think that next time I might have everyone starting with a control cube on the board, which should accelerate the early stages quite a lot.  Other than that, I'm planning to run at least my next playtest with the same prototype and hopefully see how it looks with more than two players.

Incidentally, the paper-thin theme on the game and the general "get resources and swap them for money or more resource production" makes the game perilously close to the Eurogame cliché of "trading in the Mediterranean", but at this stage of my game design career, maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've been explaining that the conceit of the game is that players are businessfolk in a corner of the kingdom, getting contracts from outside to develop the land in various ways, and that the objective is to fulfill certain key contracts and make as much money as you can while you do so, and that seems to fit just fine right now. Maybe I'll be able to come up with a more interesting thematic justification for everything later, but for now I'll just let it ride.

Other than Drafty Valley, I got to play a couple of others... One was ostensibly about investment and market manipulation, but is actually focused on negotiation, and does that very well once you get into it, and shows great potential, even though it's not a style of game I get on well with.  The other was an ambitious cooperative game about defending a village against ravaging monsters; the concept is great and the designer has made some absolutely charming character illustrations, but at the moment the gameplay seems a bit fiddly compared to what the game seems to want to be; if the designer can find his way through the complexities, this could end up being really great fun.

2018-04-22

24 Hours of Eggs

The requirement for the April 24 hour game design contest is "Egg", and I had an idea bouncing around in my head. The problem here is that I really wanted to test the idea as early into my 24 hour period as I could, which made scheduling look challenging, given a load of other things in our lives.  Eventually, though, we hit a week where I was able to go to a Thursday evening gaming session where I didn't mind talking the others into playing a prototype for 10 minutes or so, followed by a (mostly) free Friday which I could use to finish things off and submit my entry.

The idea was not very ambitious -- a nine card microgame with a little bluffing and reading, and a lot of luck -- but not every game has to be particularly clever or complex. It's a kind of egg-based Russan roulette.  What happens is that everyone has (and looks at the face of) a card representing an egg, which can be either raw, boiled, or rotten, and there is an additional, unknown, card on the table. Each player announces what is on their card (lying is allowed) and places it in the middle of the table. After a short countdown, each player grabs a card and slaps it on their own head. The aim is to avoid getting covered with raw -- or worse, rotten -- eggs.

Blank cards plus Sharpies... a useful part of the toolkit, quickly resulting in a serviceable prototype.
By the time we got to testing the game, I had decided that one player announces what is on their card, and then everyone else makes the same announcement, regardless of what they actually have. This ensures that on most rounds, some players are lying, and some are telling the truth, and also takes a certain amount of pressure away from players who are uncomfortable with lying in games.

The result of the initial test game was sufficiently encouraging that, with a couple of minor tweaks, I could progress to writing up full rules and making a printable set of cards.  A post-play discussion came up with a few potential names for the game: I ended up settling on "The Yolk's on You".

Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's nice to be able to make really simple components.
The Friday was spent largely trying to make decent looking cards and finding graphics to use on them (this time the art is public domain stuff from Pixabay, with one of the images tweaked by me), as well as writing up the rules and wondering if I should try to fill them with hilarious egg puns. I decided that I rarely come across well when I try to be funny, but there may well have been one or two places in the text where I cracked.

So, that's my twelfth entry to the 24 hour contest submitted, and the first for this year. Hopefully I'll get at least a couple more done before the year is up.  In case you are interested, the game entry post is here, and includes links to the rules and print & play card files.

2018-04-17

It's Drafty in Victoria

After missing last month's playtesting meetup in London, I actually made it this weekend, and on a whim decided to take my hand-made and still unplayed (other than some solo plays) prototype of "Drafty Valley".  I was chatting with one of the other designers before the session started, and we agreed that the type of feedback gained from other designers at this sort of meetup can often be amazingly useful in the earlier stages of a design, but might be less productive later on. That's been my experience anyway.

I was selected for the first round of games, and quickly had three volunteers to join me for a four-player game. Pleasingly, they were all willing to go with my preferred approach of, "We'll just explain each new thing as it turns up," and the game started in what must be a record time.

A few rounds in and there haven't been any builds yet. Hmm...
I won't go into a play-by-play or anything, but will report that many aspects of the game were just horrible. For instance:

  • Several actions just didn't take place because people couldn't capitalise on the selected cards.
  • The players producing grain and sheep found that there was precious little to do with their resources.
  • It took ages before we were really interacting on the board, and even then a couple of the players were still pretty isolated.
  • The scoring cards seemed pretty random and poorly thought through (well, there may have been a reason for that...!) and not knowing what was on them at the start of the game left players with no real direction for the first couple of rounds. 
  • The benefits of buying and selling on the market were massively disproportionate compared with the other things you could do.
And so on.

However, I knew that the game was shonky when I set out.  What I was really wanting to test was the overall concept of mashing together several variants on a drafting mechanic (where players pick some sort of a resource from a pool, generally taking turns to do so), and with the activities on each turn also based on drafting from a pool of options. How did that general idea work?

Well, towards the end of the session, one of the players said something along the lines of, "I don't know why we're doing what we're doing, but what we're doing is fun." He, and the others, had a lot of criticisms about the details of the game (as above), but the consensus seemed to be that the overall shape of the game (if not its current dynamic arc) has potential.  I am more than happy to take this as a result for a playtest.

So I need to build a new prototype which fits together a little more coherently, is not as slack at the beginning, is less likely to leave players unable to act on their turn, and gives everyone a bit more of a clue about what to do early on. All this while avoiding adding extra elements as, while I have a number of ideas for more features that I would love to add, there is probably enough here already to make a decent game once it is all knocked into shape. It would be great if I could get this one to play in, say, 30 to 40 minutes, but we'll see how we go.


Aside from my own game, I got to play two prototypes from other people. One was a midweight Euro with some really interesting challenges; it was a bit fiddly, and the various subgames weren't quite in sync with each other, but I really enjoyed playing it and can't wait to see it finished. The other game was a really neat and colourful abstract game that was teetering between being a crunchy puzzle-strategy game and a semi-mass-market family game, which I also very much enjoyed playing.

2018-04-06

Building in the Valley

Following on from my post about my "drafting" game a couple of weeks back, I have spent a little more time on the game and am getting closer to a complete game.  There's still a little way to go, but it's coming along.

This game has been developing along an interesting path. What I did was to start with enough components to just about play a first round with three players, and solo-played all three positions myself, adding extra components when I needed them.  Unusually, by my recent standards, I was working by drawing on bits of card, something I usually only do for initial experiments with small parts of a possible game.
The big, green pawn, by the way, is a first player token.
This is a method that works pretty well with a supply of index cards, sharpies, scissors and a paper trimmer, and assorted "stock" components. The game starts with five actions available (claim location, produce goods, sell goods, buy goods, and select score cards), so the game can pretty much be started with knowledge of what those actions do, and more introduced as they are added from the deck, including the opportunity to build locations and roads, and expand your control from claimed locations.  Some of these required additional components to be added, and I was making new action cards when I thought of them.

At this point, the only thing really preventing the game being playable all the way through is a lack of score cards (I just fluffed through that when it came up), and I'll need to throw something together there before I can get much further.  The idea is that when the "select score cards" action is chosen, everyone gets to select a single score card which gives them a scoring condition to apply at the end of the game. Each player will acquire maybe three of these through the game, and not all of them will be in play in any given game. The idea is that your strategy is shaped by the score cards selected as the game progresses.

One major decision (which is reversible if I don't like the outcome, so it's not really a big deal) is whether victory is based on how much money you have at the end of the game (in which case the score cards give you bonuses to your earnings), there is a victory point tally, or something else is used. Victory points seems natural to me as a gamer, but they can be unintuitive and seem very arbitrary, suggesting that it is usually better to have some other measure of success.  I'll probably plump for "have the most cash" as the victory condition to start with.

Anyway, that's where we are at right now. Once I have an initial set of score cards I'll start pushing the game at playtesters, starting with some who I know are OK with incomplete and terrible games.

2018-04-02

Simulating War, Casino-Style

One of the biggest challenges for me in game design is getting enough playtesting done. I get to playtesting meetups with other designers from time to time, and have a couple of groups of great people who help me out when they can, but I just can't get as much playtest time as I would like.  So I need to make the most of the playtesters I do have.

Methods to increase the effectiveness of playtesting include solo testing before involving other players, having several games on the go so there is more likely to be a game that can make use of whatever playtesters I have available, getting cleverer at observing tests and questioning players, and using maths or computer simulations to analyse the games and focus aspects of games from a statistical point of view.

Most of the games I have worked on to date haven't really lent themselves to maths and simulation, but my wargame, currently codenamed Craghold, absolutely does.  And, more to the point, early playtests have revealed a question that I need answered.  Combat in the game involves each player rolling a bunch of six-sided dice depending on the situation of their unit in the engagement, and counting the number of dice that roll at least a set target number.  Assuming the general mechanism is OK, then what is the best target number to use to get the sort of combat results I want to see?

A chart of some of my results. I'll explain a bit...
I'm not a great mathematician, so I don't feel confident about doing an analysis of the game by manipulating the various probabilities. I'm not a great computer programmer either, but I know enough to be able to code up a quick simulation of any given battle: the number of dice used by each of two players, and the target number they are rolling against.  I could then, in a matter of seconds, choose the relative unit strengths and run a thousand simulations for each possible target number. I'm not considering a target of 1, because in that case the more powerful force always wins.  A little bit of coding to produce numbers which I fed into a spreadsheet meant that I quickly had charts representing the outcomes of several different situations.

The resolution of an engagement is basically to find the difference between the number of "hits" scored by each side: whoever has the most wins, and the loser is penalised according to the size of the difference (being driven back, "shaken", or destroyed).  On the charts, the bars of each colour indicate the number of times a result occurred for the target number matching that colour. Positive numbers on the horizontal axis mean that player A wins, while negative numbers mean player B is victorious.

Fewer dice in the combat tightens the results up.
Armed with these charts I was able to use an entirely unscientific method of deciding which set of bars looked most like what I wanted the results to be.  For instance, with a target number of 2, the results went overwhelmingly in favour of the stronger force, and with more dice the results would end in absolute carnage.  This is actually probably a good choice for a game like this, rewarding the player who can bring large masses of force to bear where it counts, but I want the game to be a bit looser and lighter than a true strategy game.  On the other hand, a target of 6 makes engagements extremely unpredictable, but generally only marginal outcomes occur, which seems both boring and frustrating.

I'm planning on going with a target number of 3 as it gives the sort of profile I was looking for.  We shall see how this works out in actual playtesting when I next get a chance...

2018-03-28

The Return of the Invaded

Just a quick post this time to celebrate the return of Invaded to the playtesting cycle after spending pretty much the whole of this year working on other projects.  This is not a good thing for me as, of the projects I have on the go, Invaded is probably the most advanced and the closest to being publishable. I mean, the prototype is currently version 16.

Anyway, I was expecting to not have a chance to playtest this week, but I received an email from a friend, saying that he and his wife had a change of plans, and asking if I wanted to do a playtesting session.  When testers are a very limited resource, having people actually volunteering to help is a gift horse whose mouth should not be looked into.  So they came along with another friend, and I was able to watch a 3-player game of Invaded, managing to keep out of the way most of the time other than to act as an interactive rulebook and to give a reminder or two here and there.

Three players have been invaded. Halfway through round two, and red is about to feel the pain.

I don't often sit out of playtests, sometimes as I want to increase the numbers in the game, and sometimes because I find it useful to play and get a feel for the game as it develops.  With a game in a relatively late state of development, though, it becomes increasingly useful to be able to just observe, and to be free to make notes without interrupting the flow of play.

I do miss playing though. Despite playing 20-odd times myself, I do still like the game, which has to be a good sign.

The output from the playtest was good: I have some data about scores, choices made at various times, and turning points in the game, which should all help me find the imbalances and wonky parts. Aside from a few clarifications to some rules, I don't think I need to change anything of substance before next play. And I definitely need to get in a load more tests...

2018-03-24

Some Games I Wish I'd Invented

When I play some cool game, I often end up thinking, "I wish I had invented that," but with some games that thought runs way deeper, and a game exudes some sort of perfection, where the designer has absolutely nailed something and I end up dreaming of being a good enough designer to come up with something as wonderful.

I've been thinking about the games that have this effect on me, so here is a list of a few of the games that I wish I had invented, or even was capable of inventing. Maybe one day I'll get there...

No Thanks!

Image credit: mikehulsebus @ boardgamegeek
So this one is the big one for me. It's a game that consists of 33 cards with numbers on and a stack of counters, and that's it. Each turn you have one decision to make: do I take the card from the middle of the table, or do I put one of my limited supply of counters on it? Collect the lowest total score and you win. The genius here is the simplicity of that decision, while it still carries so much weight, the fact that runs of numbers only score the value of the lowest card in the run, and that nine of the cards are removed for each game, giving just the right amount of uncertainty for a satisfying game. Why nine cards? I can only imaging vast amounts of playtesting resulting in the perfect number. When I teach the game to people, there is invariably a general, "OK, is that it?" when I explain, and then a few turns in an unmistakable expression on their faces as the emergent subtleties start to dawn on them.

I have, on more than one occasion, said that if I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time and "invent" No Thanks! before Thorsten Gimmler does. I am totally serious about this, it is my ultimate aim in life. Failing that, I want to make sure that as many people as possible buy the game, in the hope that Thorsten can afford to buy a yacht with the royalties.

Tsuro

Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
You place a tile, you move your "dragon" along the line on the tile, you try not to get forced off the edge of the board.  I can teach this game to pretty much anyone in seconds, thanks to its rules being pretty much intuitive from the components, and it always results in laughter and a great time had by all. There is player elimination in this game, which is usually a bad thing in modern game design, but games usually last only about ten minutes and my experience is that defeated players generally want to come back and get their revenge.  With two or three players, Tsuro is a mellow, relaxing game, but with the maximum eight players, there is chaos and carnage from the start.

The real genius of this game is that most people pretty much intuitively know how to play as soon as they are shown the components, and while it won't satisfy someone wanting a deep strategic challenge, it is a box full of beautifully presented fun.

Coloretto

Image credit: kalchio @ boardgamegeek
Quite a lot deeper than the previous games, Coloretto is about collecting sets of colours.  When it is your turn, you either take a row of cards from the middle of the table and end your involvement in that round (there'll be another in a minute, until the deck runs out...) or you draw a card from the deck and add it to one of the rows.  It's a really simple concept, but I think it has two little bits of genius: the way you draw and fill the rows of cards and have to do so in a way that, ideally, isn't too advantageous to the other players, and the fact that at the end of the game, three of your sets count in your favour, while any others count against you.  The implications of the simple rules are beautiful, and make this a really challenging game, despite its basic appearance.

Coloretto has spawned other, bigger, games with the same basic mechanisms, like the very enjoyable Zooloretto, but for my money, this little card game beats almost everything else for me and is another perfect game that I wish I could have thought of.

Deep Sea Adventure

Image credit: Skombie @ boardgamegeek
At first glance, this is a great big nope. You roll dice, move your diver, then decide if you want to pick up a piece of treasure or not. What is there to like in a roll-and-move game like this? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.  The genius of turning the roll-and-move diving game into a tense, press-your-luck game by having a shared air supply which is depleted more quickly as players pick up more treasure makes this into a really compelling game. And that there is a once-and-done decision to turn back just makes the whole thing sweeter.  You get to take part in three dives, and only make a few meaningful decisions during each, but the sweet pain of having to live with your bravado or cowardice makes Deep Sea Adventure so much more than the sum of its parts.  This is a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from egging your opponents on to take greater risks, from the schadenfreude you feel when they fail, and from the buzz you get that one time you manage to get back to the submarine, heavily laden with treasure.

I totally wish I had thought of this one. Who would have thought it could work so well?

Flamme Rouge

Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
Racing games are an old staple of boardgaming, but they are not something that usually gets a lot of attention among "hobby" gamers, but cycling race game Flamme Rouge quickly captured my heart. At a basic level it is straightforward: you have two cyclists in your team, and for each of them you draw a hand of cards with movement values on them and select one to use; selected cards are gone forever, and the rest will be recycled in a future round.  The genius here, though, is in two simple rules that somehow manage to represent and distill the essence of competitive cycle racing. First, after all bikes have moved, a group of cyclists that is exactly one space behind the group ahead gets a free move to catch up (slipstreaming).  Secondly, any rider at the front of a group adds a low value card to their deck (exhaustion), meaning that later on they will have options reduced and may have to ride slower at some time in the future in order to recover. There are some neat rules about hills too, but these two are enough to leave me in awe. Capturing the theme so neatly in just a couple of easily understood rules is something I can currently only aspire to.

Final Thoughts

I find that, while I wish I could design an intricate and complex ludological artifact like Anachrony or Terra Mystica, or some smooth and satisfying middleweight Euro like Concordia or Calimala, I find that the games I am most in awe of are those small, lightweight games that just do one or two things but do them so well that I can't imagine a better way to do it. I am so often amazed by the creativity and resourcefulness of other game designers that I wonder if I will ever be able to create something that can come close to matching them, but right now I can't stop making my own games, so I just have to hope that one day I will be worthy enough to join these greats.