Train to Nowhere?

Just a quick post about the last of the games I've been working on over the last couple of weeks: Shenanigans Express.  This is one that I dreamed up back in April and threw together a quick prototype, hoping to get it to the table within a couple of weeks.  Well, nearly eight months later, I finally had that playtest!

This one was intended to be a short game with hidden roles and a degree of simultaneous action selection, with each player trying to complete their own mission, some of which involve other players. It's a style of game I haven't any experience in designing, so I thought it would be interesting to have a go.
All the items on the train have been claimed, and now everyone is trying to figure out what that means.

Anyway, having tried the game out with four players, everyone liked the idea, but the problem was that there was no real way to infer much information about the other players, or to make a plan for how to complete your own objective.  The main mechanism of everyone simultaneously selecting whether they would move or "act" on each round was kinda fun but was missing something. 

I have plenty of food for thought here, and would like to make a game along these lines, but I will have to mull things over for a while and see if inspiration comes.  Hopefully some point in the next few months...

So, it's nearly Christmas now, and this may well be my last post before the new year, so I'll just say thanks for reading, have a great Christmas and New Year, and see you in 2019...


Open Up and Say Arrrr!

Scurvy Crew is my oldest game in development, going back to pretty much the start of this blog -- it grew from an experiment that I discussed in my first "proper" post.  It is a game that has repeatedly come back into focus, had some development and testing, and then been put back on the shelf for a period of quite a few months.

The last few weeks have been one of those periods of activity after the game came back to mind for some reason (possibly actually that one of my local friends who sometimes playtests for me mentioned it not that long ago).  The issue that had been vexing me throughout the game's development is similar to what I see in many of my games: it took too long to explain and too long to play for the type of game I was trying to make.  I was previously aiming at under an hour, but on reflection I think this is another game that feels to me that it should be playable in half an hour and take maybe 5 minutes to explain.  I was running at well over double that.

With a few months of distance on the design (never underestimate the value of leaving a design for 6+ months if you are stuck) I decided that the system I had for players using multiple actions to capture a prize ship and then score according to who had contributed the most to the capture, was interesting but just slowed the game down.  Similarly, the mechanisms I had for player-versus-player battles took everyone out of the main flow of the game and slowed things down even more.

I ended up just scrapping all that, making prize ships just a one-shot to capture (the capturing player just keeps the prize ship for scoring -- and I thus scrapped the treasure deck too), and bringing all the player-versus-player stuff onto a few of the crew cards that can be activated to use instead of having a whole subsystem for combat.  Instead of having merchants/prizes in a row that needed upkeep, I just dealt them out into a grid (a stack of two cards per location) that players could move around to hunt their prey.  A few tweaks here and there to support these other changes and we were able to play...

A four-player game of Scurvy Crew v7, still early days with a lot of targets out there.
First we had a three-player game that took almost exactly half an hour, towards the end of which a fourth player turned up.  I went off to make a fresh round of coffees, leaving the experienced players to explain the game to the newcomer.  This was a bit cheeky of me, but I wanted to see how that worked out.  As it happened, by the time I brought the coffee, the new player was pretty much fully briefed -- it turned out later that he had missed a couple of points, but the experiment did show me that the game was now far easier to explain that it was in previous iterations.

Our second play, this time with four players, took a little longer, about 40 minutes, which I was happy with under the circumstances.  End game scores in the second play were somewhat lower than in the first, which I think was largely due to the set-collection system I am using for scoring being a bit disrupted by the extra player.  I'm not entirely convinced that the game's scoring system is right, but it's not too bad and didn't seem to produce unfair scores.  I'm not going to worry about it too much right now.

The flow of the game was, overall, pretty good, and it was nice to see a few variations in strategy being used, with one ship repeatedly returning to port for refitting and then making use of navigation skills to skip around the "board" rapidly, while another was staying at sea for long spells by cycling crew in and out more, for example.  There are, however, a whole load of cards that are either over- or under-powered as they stand.  I am happy enough with the general shape of the game right now that I think I will start looking at getting the balance issues addressed.


Castle War in London Once More

Another month, another playtest meetup in London, the last one of this year. And for a second month I took along The Castle War, my two-player card game inspired by the 12th century war in England between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda.  I've had a pretty productive time with this game over the last few weeks, with several useful playtests, and the game has been stripped back quite a lot in an attempt to make it quicker to learn and smoother and quicker to actually play.

I found my two volunteers, and after a little while playing one of their prototypes (an experimental storytelling game, which had some really interesting aspects, so it'll be great to see how it develops) and set about explaining the game.  Pleasingly this took a load less time that previous plays, but as it turned out this was a bit of an illusion, as several rules turned out to not be clear to the players, partly due to a weak explanation and partly due to wording or presentation of some components being less that ideal, but also, I think, a few points suggest that some of the rules may have been unintuitive.  I need to figure out which bits are this latter, as this is harder to fix than simply improving an explanation or some graphic design.

Getting into the second half of the game and quite a lot of forces on the table.
A few issues came up during play, like the way that the players didn't really click with how the dice are used to constrain card placement and give bonuses in combat, and there was a misunderstanding about how victory was to be calculated, but the things I picked up on as bigger issues at the moment are actually related to game balance.

One of the big issues, and one that has been bugging me throughout my work on this game, is the "withdraw" tactic.  The game has tactic cards that can be added to an army to modify the outcome of battle resolution, and the withdraw card allows a player to lure a lot of the opponent's forces to a battle, and then simply leave them there, ceding the ground to the enemy without fighting, and with a large part of their resources committed to the wrong place.  It made sense in my mind, but the structure of the game never incentivised players to use this option, and in practice it seems at best useless, and at worst counterproductive.  I've tried a few tweaks, but nothing has worked, and this test showed me that the problem has not gone away.

How to address an issue like this? Well, I was flirting with dropping the tactic entirely, but that felt like running away from the problem, and I really wanted to represent in the game the fact that, in the history, there were numerous examples of one side simply walking away from a conflict, effectively saying, "OK, you win!"

So, what is the real benefit of withdrawing your troops from a battle or a siege? Mainly so you don't lose valuable troops, and you have them to use elsewhere, I would say.  The problem is that, in this game, you are limited in how many cards you can play in a given turn, so having a lot of cards in hand may give you options, but it takes a long time to make use of them, thus invalidating that potential advantage.  To fix this I need to either make it so that you can play the additional cards more quickly, or make the withdraw tactic do something different.  What I will try out is allowing a withdrawal to move all the troops at a castle to an adjacent castle.  We'll see how that works out in play.

This is all effectively an issue of balance: if a card is such that nobody ever wants to play it, then it is not in balance with the rest of the game.  Normally I say that I worry about balance later in a game's development, but that is not entirely true: if some element of a game is grossly out of kilter, I do need to change it, partly because it distorts gameplay, but mostly because it is a distraction.  I often find that if something is massively over- or under-powered, even the most experienced playtesters tend to fixate on it and have difficulty seeing the rest of the game.

The other most distracting balance issue, I think, is that two unit types, knights and soldiers, are effectively identical other than the fact that knights are better than soldiers in terms of combat strength.  Where you have no real control over the cards coming to your hand, having some of them being objectively worse (in effectively every situation) than others can be a problem and lead to one player just having worse cards and thus less chance of winning.  I want to do something about this, so have been thinking through a few options that I will be tinkering with.  One that I am thinking about is to make knights more powerful, but those knights don't get benefits from having leaders with them, while soldiers do.

Overall, though, I was pleased with what I saw in the game this time.  It still has a long way to go, but the play time was only a shade over my target 30 minutes, and the game swung back and forth a couple of times during play and was finally decided right at the end -- although the aforementioned misunderstanding about game end scoring did take the shine off that a bit!

Feeling optimistic about this at the moment though.


Craghold Result

You may remember that earlier in the year I made a kinda-wargame, The Battle for Craghold, that I didn't get to a state I was really happy with, but I did enter into the Board Game Geek Wargame Print and Play contest.  Well, the results came out a few days ago.
Re-using an old pic, but this is pretty much the game as submitted.
It turns out that I came joint third in three categories: best 2+ player game (i.e. not solo), best short game (in this context it's about 90 minutes or shorter to be eligible), and best game in this year's theme (fantasy and sci-fi).  This means that I must have picked up at least some votes, so many thanks to anyone who voted for my game.

As I said, the game isn't really up to scratch in my opinion, and needs a whole lot of work to be what it should be, so the question is, will I put in the effort to complete the job?  I can't say for sure, but I do quite like the game as it stands and would like to get it to be a solid game that I properly enjoy. I learnt a lot in the process of creating it, so the effort was not wasted, but it's on my list of ones to come back to at some point down the line...


Of Dragons and Castles

On Saturday it was Dragonmeet, a one-day games convention in London, with a significant focus on roleplaying games, but also a lot of space given over to other forms of tabletop gaming, including board games, with a load of boardgame traders and publishers in the trade hall, and loads of demo games and open gaming space.  Playtest UK was, as usual, running an area of five tables for designers to test their prototypes, and I was along to test one of my games as well as to help out in the playtesting area as best I could.

Actually that helping out bit, while it involved a lot of standing and talking, and had me physically exhausted by the end, wasn't too difficult as a steady flow of interested people coming past meant that the designers never had very long to wait before they had volunteers to try out and give feedback on their games.

The Playtest Zone just getting up and running in the morning.
Thanks to Rob Harris of Playtest UK for the photo.
The game I took along to test was Castle War, which I was hoping to get a couple of plays of in the two hour testing session I had been allocated: I am aiming to make it playable within half an hour, with maybe five or ten minutes to teach, so allowing for it to overrun a bit and some time for feedback, I figured I had a chance.

In the event, it took almost exactly an hour to play with the two very fine volunteers who joined me.  OK, so they weren't hurried in their way of playing, but even so the game did go on a bit.  And adding in the teaching and feedback time, I decided to call it a day afterwards.

My testers were very helpful in their discussion, but as is usually the case, the real gold comes from watching what happens to the game state as we go along and how the players behave and interact with the components and each other.  Throughout the game the players seemed engaged and invested, and didn't seem to have a problem with the game taking longer than hoped for.  Sure, they had issues here and there, but were willing to roll with it, albeit pointing out the times when they had a terrible hand of cards or felt that their options had been reduced to the point of being frustrating.

About a third of the way through the game, brought to you in Blurryvision.
Aside from the fact that my half-hour game took an hour, the issues I noted down included that using the "withdraw" tactic meant that you could end up with so many cards in hand that you lose control of conflict resolutions, all the event cards were drawn by one player, while the other had too many tactics, and the "1 Supply" cards were entirely redundant (I should have spotted that before play!).  The tricky issues to solve, I think, are the ones related to drawing a poor hand of cards, and I may need to find a way to mitigate this, but the rest are relatively easily addressable.

As it turns out I was able to try out some changes a couple of days later, but that is another story...


Castle, Castle, Castle...

I've been making a little more progress with my 2-player game about castle sieges and battles during the 12th century.  I had previously done a little light testing with a small, hand-made card set, and then spent a while setting up a nanDECK script and data file to build a "full" deck that should allow a proper play through.

By way of a sanity test, my daughter, Miss B, had a play of the new set, and this seemed to work reasonably well (and earned the coveted accolades of "not terrible" and "better than the last version"), so I felt okay about taking the game out of the house for more testing.

At the monthly weekend playtest meetup in London I had two fine people giving the game a shakedown.  We cut the game off a little short in order to allow time for playing someone else's prototype (a very entertaining game about moving cows into a field and trying to get them past a bovicidal rival farmer), but was able to see the game in play and have some very useful feedback discussions.
Version 2, and the second castle from the right is looking in serious trouble.

Overall, the testers felt that the game did offer them interesting decisions, but the combat part of the game seemed complicated and hard to understand (the game tries to combine a rock-paper-scissors contest of tactical orders with a comparison of relative strengths), and we noted a bunch of elements that seemed either over or under powered.  As I often say, in the early stages of making a game, I don't worry much about balance, but it is always worth noting where there is a perception of a problem so it can be addressed later.

Over the following couple of days I managed to get testing done with a couple of local friends and tried out a few tweaks.  My first  try was very close to the version I tried on at the London meetup, which confirmed a load of the issues we'd seen before, plus revealed an additional wrinkle: it didn't really matter how many castles were in play (by this time I had experimented with four, five, and six), players felt incentivised to concentrate their efforts on just a couple of them, leaving the others uncontested.

I had an idea. If we had six castles, we could number them one to six, and then use dice in some way to control which castles could be affected by cards at any time.  I roughed out some rules based on this concept: each player has two dice which they roll, and the castles matching the die rolls can be played to by either player, but the player owning each die has a small combat advantage at the matching castle; dice get rerolled after battles.

Version 2a, now with added dice. I should change this blog name to "Later, add some dice."

So this had the effect that I had hoped for and resulted in the game spreading out more.  The downsides were that players (and I include myself in this) often missed which locations were allowed for play, forgot to reroll at the appropriate times, and sometimes felt that the dice made it difficult to plan beyond the next battle.  Notwithstanding these issues, I liked what the dice did for the game, so I'm planning on keeping them in for the time being and seeing if I can knock off the rough edges.

The other recurring issue was my combat system, which was based around a 3x3 table that gave an effect for each combination of the three tactical options chosen by the attacker and defender at a castle.  This was still causing more confusion than interest, despite me telling myself that it was pretty straightforward, could be streamlined with decent graphic design, and could be internalised after a few battles anyway.  Sometimes it takes a while to get something into (or out of) my thick head, but eventually I decided to scrap the table, write some simpler rules onto the tactic cards, and give it another go.  This was another definite improvement.  It lost a bit of the subtlety I was hoping for, but it's just a first pass and the tactic effects can certainly be improved later.

I am also not convinced about the supply cubes I have been using, and have some ideas about replacing them with cards, meaning that I will almost certainly need more cards in the game to compensate, but I'm feeling that about 100 cards plus four dice is probably a reasonable component list.

What now? I'm working on updating my prototype again, and have booked in for a playtesting session with this game at Dragonmeet next weekend: if you're there, I'm playtesting from 4pm, and helping out at the playtest zone for the earlier part of the afternoon.  Hopefully I'll get the game into a reasonable shape in time, and maybe even get a little sanity-check testing beforehand. I have my work cut out for me for the next few days...


What's That on Thy Face?

Before I start, this is a long post with a load of rambling about how I reskinned a small game and got a load of professionally printed cards made, including some technical bits, partly here for my own edification, in case I forget the tricks I used. Apologies in advance.

On with the show...

You may remember earlier in the year I made a small game for a 24 Hour contest, which was about cracking eggs (in the form of cards) on your head and trying to not get covered with rotten eggs.  It was, and still is, a dumb game, but one that usually results in some good laughs when it is played.  For reasons of my own, I had a need for a small game with a Shakespearean theme, that I could give away to friends, so my brain started thinking about a newly retitled "Egge on Thine Face".

While I was pondering this, Cathryn Orchard, an artist friend, posted some pictures on Facebook which looked very close to a style that I thought would work well for the game.  A conversation was had, an art direction document was written, a price was agreed, and in a short while, Cathryn sent me photos of her nearly-done-works-in-progress, showing that she had absolutely nailed the art brief.  Not long afterwards, she sent me the good scans of the work, making me a very happy customer.
The card back, which is even more on the money than I imagined.
The artwork was all provided as scans of pen and ink work, and I wanted to be able to print this onto various backgrounds, so used GIMP to turn the background transparent and then clean the image up a bit from the imperfections resulting from this conversion.

As for the backgrounds, I figured using some textured paper effect would be nice, maybe with a darkish one for the card backs and a lighter one for the front.  Some searching the web led me to someone who had shared a selection of paper textures via DeviantArt under the terms "FREE USE :) JUST DONT CLAIM THESE AS YOURS :)", which is not exactly a clear Creative Commons license, but I figured would be fine as long as I give appropriate credit in the rules -- and here!

My original version of this game had cards with the simplest possible fonts for the limited card text, but going with my Shakespearean reskinning effort, I wanted to use a more "authentic" looking typeface.  Again, some searching the web found JSL Ancient, a free-to-use typeface based on fonts used by C17th English printers, and very much typical of the period a century either way of that time, so perfect for my use.

So, pulling it all together... As you may know, I make extensive use of a piece of software called nanDECK, which is a tool designed to help you create custom game cards.  I already had a script to create the cards for the original version of the game, which just needed small tweaks to account for the new typeface, art and background textures.

My usual method for using nanDECK involves building decks of cards, nine to an A4 sheet, which can then be printed out and cut, with the minor issue (if you want a professional finish) of there being lines on the edges of the cards, depending on how you go about cutting them up.  This is not a problem for my prototypes, and not for most people who make print and play games.

I was intending to get these cards printed at UK-based print-on-demand service, Ivory Graphics, who require printable artwork to be provided as PDF files, with a 3mm bleed. What this means is that the art I provide needs to have an additional 3mm all around the intended card faces so that if the cards are cut slightly off-centre, they will still look okay.  This was easily done by tweaking some numbers in my nanDECK script and setting the PDF pace size I would output to match the size of the art the printer required.

Now we get a bit technical.  As with most (probably all, actually) printers, Ivory they require files to be submitted using the CMYK colourspace as opposed to the RGB used by the free tools I have available to me.  In case you didn't know, these are basically two different ways for a computer image file to define colours, with CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) being optimised for print, while RGB (Red, Green, Blue) based on how screens work. If a printer is expecting one of these and gets the other, the results can be... Actually, I have no idea what the results are, but I hear they are less than ideal.

Here is a point where my lack of training and experience in printing and graphic design really shows. It turns out that in order to convert your files to CMYK you need something called an ICC color profile, and researching that a bit resulted in a lot of confusion for me. This is on my list of things I really need to learn about, but in the shorter term I did manage to find an incantation for GhostScript that I could use on my Linux PC...

-sColorConversionStrategy=CMYK -dProcessColorModel=/DeviceCMYK \
-sOutputFile=EoTF_cards_individual_cmyk.pdf \

If you are not used to Unix or Linux command lines, that command above is probably terrifying to look at, but it follows a style that is very familiar to most other command line tools, and when you get used to that sort of thing, there are all sorts of useful shenanigans you can get up to, without having to click around menus and dialogue windows.

I have used this particular command before, and it gave a result that produced the results I wanted with the printer on a previous project, so it is, for the moment, a voodoo spell that produces an effect I need without any understanding on my part about what is going on under the bonnet.

Being a little paranoid, though, I had to wonder if this actually did anything tangible, so I found another incantation that I could use to provide some evidence...
Either gobbledigook, or interesting stuff, depending on your point of view.
(Probably much like this blog in general.)
So it looks like something changed: in my original file there are RGB images, and in the magicked one there are CMYK images, so we could be getting somewhere.

Right, logging into the Ivory Game Maker website, I was able to upload my PDF file and then twiddle things around until the cards were arranged with the fronts and backs that I wanted.  If I had spent a little time with nanDECK, formatting my file to alternate card fronts and backs, this would have been a lot quicker (well, automatic, I think) but it wasn't too bad a process.  I set the project up to be six copies of the game in one deck (of 54 cards) for convenience, checked the digital proofs, and then submitted an order for the first set, just checking that everything worked, before ordering a bigger batch later.

As an aside, I have so far ordered four of these 54 card packs, and two of them came with the card backs visibly imperfectly centred. This is one of those things that can, unfortunately, happen, and is the reason for that 3mm bleed allowance.  Something I learned from this, however, is that the border on the card back art made this imperfection a lot more obvious.  I really like the framing of that border, and I think it looks great on the "good" cards, but it is a thing to bear in mind if I ever do another project like this.

Next I needed a rulebook, preferably a small one. I rewrote my original The Yolk's on You rules, simplifying a bit, and cutting out a lot of cruft, then fed all that into the DTP package, Scribus, which I have used a couple of times before, but don't have a lot of experience with. After a bit of poking around, I managed to get the rules formatted so that I could trim the page to an appropriate size, then fold it a couple of times to be a little larger than the game cards, so I could fit the whole thing into a gripseal baggie.

I printed a load of these onto some paper that came pre-printed with an aged texture, the sort of paper you buy to print invitations to a pirate themed party, or something.  Unfortunately the colour of this paper doesn't quite match that of the texture I used for the card backs, which would have been ideal, but doing it this way is saving me a lot of printer toner.

And so, all the above, combined with a bunch of heavy duty 2.5" by 3.5" gripseal bags (350 micron plastic, which was so worth the slightly increased outlay), meant that I could assemble a pile of the games in a state ready to be given away.

Some cards, some more cards, and a baggie containing cards and rules. Yay!

Overall, I'm very pleased with this whole project and how it turned out. The game itself is very basic, and the presentation is rudimentary, but it is what I wanted it to be.  I will probably make a few more sets of it, but when the limited supply of paper for the rulesheets is gone, I reckon that'll be it.  But the print and play materials are available on the game's page on Board Game Geek, so if anyone fancies doing some printing and cutting, go for it!


The Castles of Comparatively Sane King Stephen

Another month, another new game... This one has been stewing in my brain for a little while now as I have been reading a book about the civil war in England (and Normandy, but the narrative in the book focuses on England) between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in the mid 12th century.  This is the period often known as The Anarchy.

There were a lot of twists and turns in the war before it finally reached a settlement which allowed Stephen to remain as king for the rest of his life (only about a year after the end of the war, as it happened), but to be succeeded by Matilda's son, who became Henry II.  Lots of material for a game in there, but the bit that caught my imagination was the period of comparative stalemate through a big chunk of the 1140's, which the author, Jim Bradbury, describes as the Castle War -- I have no idea if this is a widely used term. During this period, there were no major battles, but both sides built, besieged, and captured many castles in a shifting game of chess that Stephen seems to have done better at but, while Matilda ended up withdrawing to Normandy, it was not enough to stop resistance from her faction, or prevent the later campaigns of her son, Henry.  Much of this phase of the war also took place close to where I live (seemingly most of it within an hour's drive), making it of some local interest too.

I have finally reached the stage where I have a playable prototype, albeit one missing a few elements that I am hoping to add later, and also having some rules that are just a bit vague and woolly.  Still, my daughter, Miss B, played the game with me and helped decide a few rules that I wasn't sure about.  It looks like we do actually have the basics of a workable game, though the balance is certainly off, dynamics are ropy, and it could all collapse very easily.  This is fine, and where I wanted to be: it felt like we were actually playing a game.
Hand drawn cards for the win!
I actually had a load of fun scribbling bad pictures of motte and bailey castles.

The game as it stands is a pretty simple card game.  There are a row of cards depicting castles in the centre of the table, and the objective is to either control all of the castles, or to have the majority when the deck of cards runs out.  You play cards, which can be troops, leaders, or tactics cards, face-down on your side of the castles, and when you use a turn to draw fresh cards, you must nominate a castle to "resolve".  When you resolve a castle, all cards played by it are revealed, and a conflict either takes place or it doesn't, as a result of which the castle may change ownership, and cards may be discarded or returned to their player's hand.

This seems to work reasonably well at the moment, at least when both players are playing in the spirit of the game and not trying anything crazy.

So, with the proof of concept holding so far, what now?  The main elements I want to add in, taken from warfare of the period, are to consider "counter castles" (fortifications built to limit the operations of a more established castle, and to act as a base for siege), the sometimes shifting allegiances of the barons involved in the conflict, and prisoners and hostages taken from the opposition.  With all of these I need to be careful to not add too much complexity, as I want to keep the game fairly light and fast flowing, but if they can add to the theme and the strategic decisions available, I'll give it a try.

I also need to consider the overall form of the game. At the moment, the components are a small deck of cards and a few tokens to indicate the supplies held by a castle.  One possible issue is that there being a single deck of cards might lead to games where a poor distribution of cards might result in a massively unbalanced game, or one that is just boring.  It might be worth using separate decks for different types of cards, so players can access the types of cards they need, or perhaps each player could have their own deck.  All things to think about as I move forward...


Three Powers Go to Town

I've been a bit low on energy lately, particularly on the game design front, but one big positive has come with the start of a design collaboration with Phil Tootill, a friend and playtesting buddy who used to work for the same organisation as me (which was convenient for playtesting at lunchtimes), and contributed one of the official game variants to The Lady and the Tiger.  We thrashed some ideas out over an online hangout, I threw together an initial prototype and did some early testing, then Phil took over, making some changes and getting playtest feedback on them before handing back over to me.

The core idea of the game is that players are shadowy figures, guiding and manipulating the actions of three powerful factions which are vying for control of the land.  The outcomes for the factions themselves don't really matter: it's all about the personal objectives of the players, who might shift their attention and favours through the game.  We want the game to be reasonably quick to teach and not too long to play, so maybe an hour or less.

We've been through a few iterations of this so far, trying a few different approaches, including using cards with varying degrees of multi-use-ness, having money tokens or not, using a set round structure or not, and so on.  All this has circled round an idea that still looks worthwhile to us, but just hasn't really convinced either of us of the direction to take so far.

My latest attempt stole the "hand building" approach of such games as Concordia and Century: ChooseYourVersion.  If you don't know these games, basically when it is your turn you play a card and do what it says, and every few turns you pick up all the cards you have played so far, thus replenishing your options; plus you gain new cards as you go to give yourself more variety.

This weekend was an opportunity to go to London for a playtesting meetup, so I took the uninspiringly-titled "Three Powers" along to see what feedback I could get.

As often happens, I forgot to take a photo, so here is an approximate reenactment of the game.

So, let's just say that the game in its current form was not an unalloyed success. There was a general approval for the concept of the game and some of its elements, but plenty just sat badly.

As is often the case in my early designs, the pacing was poor, and some things took so long to achieve that nobody bothered with them. We also saw that pretty much everyone effectively focused on a single faction, meaning that the faction with two players contributing to its moves became more powerful on the board. This isn't necessarily bad in itself, but it meant that the "solo" players felt that they were struggling, and the scoring was such that it reinforced this perception.

Apart from that, chunks of the game were either overpowered or felt irrelevant. This may be an issue with balance, or it may indicate that some elements are simply unnecessary.

Interestingly, one of the playtesters spotted an action that was massively exploitable and asked if he should go ahead and exploit it, or pretend that it wasn't a big deal and play more "gently". This is awesome, and great playtesting. Under the circumstances, I wanted to just see the game in broad terms and simply noting the issues with this action and then continuing as if they weren't there was the most useful thing, but if we were later in the development process I might have wanted to see how much damage could be done. Of course, everyone around the table for this test was a game designer, and so sensitive to the needs of the process, but I was so pleased to have been asked.  I will try to learn from this and do similar when I am testing other people's games.

Where does this leave this game?  I am thinking that I want to focus even more on the cards, and actually lose the politics and influence tracking boards, but probably reintroduce the score track that we retired a little while back.  I want players to probably actually play fewer cards during the game, but have weightier decisions and bigger effects on the turns that they do play. As a tester commented, the game just doesn't seem dynamic enough right now.  However, I saw enough positivity here that I definitely feel it is worth pushing forward, albeit with some significant changes.

I have some ideas for now and will see if I can get things moving in the coming days so that I have something interesting to show Phil later.  Trying something out which turns out to be a blind alley isn't a problem as we can always roll back to previous versions.

Of course, being at a playtesting meetup is not all about my games.  I was pleased to have a go at a game that I had played a couple of earlier iterations of, and has now been streamlined from a 60+ minute middleweight Eurogame with many moving parts (and which I did like, as it happens) to a slick, 30 minute set collection game that I would totally buy and could probably play with people who were not hardcore hobby gamers. The other couple of games I played were much earlier on the development path: one was a cooperative "dungeon crawl" game that was a bit creaky but had some definite charm and potential, while the other was an investment game based around an interesting idea that needs a lot of work but could become viable.

Thanks to everyone who was there on Sunday for making the day so fun and productive. And good luck to all those heading off to pitch their designs at Essen this week...


Making Tracks in London

Having missed a month due to reasons of having a family and a life with them, I got back to the London Sunday playtest meetup this weekend, and this time took along my game, Corlea, inspired by an iron age wooden road through a section of bog in County Longford in Ireland. I first did a little race game based on this site a couple of years ago, and then last year added this Euro-style game to my pile of works in progress, and came back to play with it some more this year. (Click on the "Corlea" label below to find the various posts.)

Anyway, this was the first time I had playtested the game with anyone other than one of my local friends, so I was hoping to learn some new things about the game. I knew already that the game end was woolly, balance was poor, and pacing was uncertain, but what else...?

About mid-game, with most of the worker cubes on the board,
and some very fine elbow modeling from the testers.
We had a three-player game, taking only about half an hour, which was something of a surprise: all the tests I had run of this over the last few months have been solo, so I really had no idea of how long it would take with real players.  This is a fine example of how, while solo testing is a really useful approach for getting rough assessments of progress, you really do need other people to know what is what.

Overall I think the game was less dull than I had feared, but was very much underwhelming -- though, given its early stage of development, I'm not going to beat myself up over that.  Some of the key observations we had were:

  • The trackway got completed rather quickly, with chieftains (player pieces) still only half way along.
  • Once a load of worker cubes had been placed, competition for the various action/scoring spots pretty much stopped.
  • The dice for scoring and action difficulty were reasonably popular, but seemed too chaotic in the way they are being used.
  • The various types of card are probably the key to the game, but at the moment they don't quite get there, and the incentive to acquire them might not be enough as yet.
  • There was a feeling that the game is entirely tactical, and you can't really make any strategic plans.
There were a load more comments, which I have noted in my logbook, but I think these are the main ones I want to address in the short term.  My plan for the next iteration is to remove cubes from action spaces every time an action is completed, and to try a different way of handling the scoring dice to make them more predictable.  I also need to work out a smarter end to the game.  From then on, we'll see...

This was, of course, an afternoon that was not all about my game, and I was able to test and give feedback on several other prototypes.  This time we had a clever auction game, a sneaky negotiation and voting game, a tense cooperative alien hunt, and a frantic real-time dice game, and missed some other great stuff at other tables.  Looking forward to next month already...


Participating in War

Today I attended the Colours wargame show in the next town southish from where I live. This is my second time, and while I am not what anyone would describe as a wargamer (particularly when the focus in this context is on miniatures games), I have enjoyed both of my trips there, partly from browsing the trade hall and looking at the various games being run, and partly from joining in a couple of the participation games that take up most of the top floor of the show.

I only have very limited experience with these participation games, but I suspect there is something I can learn from them. They contrast quite a lot with demo games at a boardgame event, which would generally be done by, or on behalf of, a publisher or designer, where the aim is, when it gets right down to it, to sell you something.  What I have seen of participation games at wargame shows, while some are put on by publishers, most of them are actually run by wargame clubs and they are presented both as a service and as a way for the members of a club to show off what they can do -- and have fun doing it.
This picture brought to you by BlurryVision™
If it was clearer you would see a bunch of Jeeps driving around blowing stuff up.
Across the show there were games varying from very quick skirmishes up to epic battles with many hundreds (possibly even thousands in a couple of cases) of miniatures arrayed across a vast battlefield.  They are invariably presented beautifully, with great attention paid to the layout and scenery.  Some are designed to be quick to teach and playable in a manageable amount of time by casual players, and these are the only ones I actually have experience of, but I understand some of the bigger games just run through the day and allow players to turn up and take over a unit command for part of the time.

The games I have played (those more casual ones) seem to have been either simplified versions of published rulesets, or custom built.  These latter are probably closely based on something else, and even if they are not consciously, the general pattern of roll-to-hit, possibly followed by roll-to-defend, and/or roll-for-damage, is a familiar one that turns up in so many games that it doesn't require a big investment of time to set up.

Something I wish I'd asked was whether clubs take the same game around to multiple shows, or build something afresh each time.  I suspect there is something of a mixture in this.

What I really like about these games is that they were constructed with a particular audience in mind. The games I have played were targeted as people like me, who aren't deep into the wargaming world, and don't want to spend ages learning intricate rules. They provide an excellent window for me to see some of what there is out there.  I like also that they tend to focus clearly on one thing and, while they may have some wobbles about them, they generally do that one thing well.  This year I played one game where we cooperated to blow stuff up against an enemy controlled by a member of the club running the game, and another where we were tank commanders trying to be the one to kill an enemy tank, again controlled by an expert. Last year one game involved battling for treasure at the bottom of the sea -- with Lego! All of these felt clear, simple, and enjoyable.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with all this, or what it is I can learn here, but maybe it is just a general reminder that visuals matter, focus matters, context matters, and knowing your intended audience matters.

If anyone reading this has any experience playing or running a participation game at a wargame show, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. :)


The Proof of the Reading

As you may be aware I have, over the last few years, occasionally helped out with proof reading and editing game rulebooks on a volunteer basis, and even got myself a few printed credits for the work. This is something I quite enjoy doing, and I feel is an important thing to do to try to help raise standards within the hobby. I don't feel I'm particularly good at it though.

So, I have found out about the Society for Editors and Proofreaders thanks to Rachael Mortimer (give her a shout for experienced, professional proofreading of game rulebooks), and after reading around their website and discussing with Rachael, I decided to join.

The membership pack, it has arrived!
Membership benefits include discounts from their suite of training courses, so I figured that if I wanted to do some of their courses, the membership worked out as effectively being free.  Why not give it a punt?

As of this evening, I have joined the organisation and signed up for the entry-level proofreading course as a taster.  I will be working through that over the next few weeks and then we'll see how things go. If all goes well, this may be a new string to my bow.


Craghold: Kinda Failed, Kinda Succeeded

If you've been reading this blog over the last few months, you're probably aware that I have been working, on and off, on a game for the Board Game Geek Print and Play Wargame contest, and made some decent progress, ending up with a game that is playable, but a little wobbly in some areas and has some serious balance issues.  I feel it's OK for my first attempt at a wargame, even though it needs a load more work to be considered "done".

Well, I kinda lost track of dates and deadlines, and a couple of days ago I checked the contest details and, to my horror, I found I was a day away from the submission deadline rather than having several weeks as I thought.  I don't know why I got mixed up about this, but I clearly fell foul of the cardinal sin of not putting important dates and deadlines into my calendar.

The end state of a recent playtest where the defenders got a far-too-comfortable victory.
So this left me with a decision to make: do I throw in the towel and maybe submit a more thoroughly developed game next year, or do I just go for it and submit what I have?

I decided to make a few corrections to the rulebook that I had discovered recently, and then go for it.  This being effectively an incomplete game, I am pretty much throwing away any realistic chance of winning in any of the contest categories, unless it turns out that I am the only entry in one of them! I am OK with this though. As with the regular 24 hour contests, I'm taking the main benefit as being an incentive to make something that I probably wouldn't have done otherwise, and learn something from the process. 

If you fancy checking out the entries for the contest (and maybe voting when the voting page comes up in November), here's the contest thread.


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.


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...


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.


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...


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.


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...


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.  


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.