Scurvy London

Having revived Scurvy Crew over the Christmas and new year period, made a new version of it, tested it solo, then hastily revised the revision, I took the rather scrappy prototype to London for the first Sunday playtesting meetup of the year.

Once again the journey was not uneventful, as the skies saw fit to drop quite a lot of snow on me, starting just before I got into the car to drive to the station, making the half-hour drive far more hazardous than expected, and the wait for the train rather colder and wetter than normal, but the rest of the journey was just fine.  The snow appears to have followed me to London, where it started falling a couple of hours or so later, leaving rain behind at home, so there was no sign of snow on my return.

I'm British. We talk about weather.  Sue me.

Anyway, at the meetup, I got to play an early prototype of a worker placement game that was quite a lot of fun.  It was a bit fiddly, and had issues with the scoring, but was engaging and had a lot to think about and I was surprised when the designer said it was only the second playtest of the game, as it felt like it was a complete game that just needed a bit of tidying, streamlining and balancing.  Good stuff.

I was up in the second session and my pitch for Scurvy Crew (the routine is that everyone tapped for a slot gets a minute or so to outline their game so players can choose what they will play) was full of caveats about how wonky and untested it is, and how I had no idea of how long it would take to play.

Mid-play, with a couple of merchants being engaged, and the black ship in port to resupply.

So, we had four of us playing (thanks to Rob, Kieran and Gavin for playing and valuable feedback), and the game mostly went OK, though had some terrible balance issues (we made a couple of tweaks to the rules during play -- something that is easy to get away with when you have game designers testing) and ran long (we called it off after about an hour of play), but gave me a very good feel for how it works at the moment, and yielded some great feedback. 

Some of the main points that came up:

  • My mechanism for scoring treasure (gaining cards from a deck of regular playing cards and scoring your longest suit at game end) was very warmly received, which surprised me a little as I had pretty much just thrown the mechanism in as a place holder. This was made even better by the option to discard (an increasing number of) treasure cards to get extra actions.
  • Men o'war weren't handled quite right: they caused big problems and there was no incentive to do anything other than steer clear.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing as such, but it didn't seem much fun. Some changes introduced during play improved this, but I have a few other ideas to try.
  • There was no real incentive to attack other players, something that the players wanted to do in a pirate game.  We had some discussion about possible ways to improve this, and I think it is actually going to be my biggest challenge for the next version.
  • Overall, most of the mechanisms of the game seemed to have good thematic resonance, including the overhead of spending actions to move between port and sea, and from the general sea area to go hunting merchants, which provided a nice reward for ships that were able to stay at sea for longer.
I have a lot of work to do, but the main changes I made in the last revision (the new way to handle hunting and capturing merchants) seems to have been a real success, even if the balance is way off at the moment.  There was a lot more discussion about the game, identifying many other problems, but I am really happy with how things went.

So next up: rethink player vs player battles, take another look at men o' war (I definitely want to keep them), set up some crew cards for starter hands, a little tidying and simplification, and see how we go from there...


Milestones of Obsession

Sometimes I think about what classes as being a success as a game designer, and what classes as being successful for me.  I do harbour an idea at the back of my mind that it would be lovely to actually be able to earn a living designing (and otherwise being involved in the publication of) games, which makes it a rare hobby for me that I would even consider such a thing. But I also recognise that very few game designers do earn a living from the business, and to do so requires a lot of work and dedication, some great skills, and a whole dollop of luck.  I can safely forget about that as anything other than a "wouldn't it be nice..." aspiration and get on with my life otherwise.  More realistic would be the hope that at some point I will be able to earn enough from designing games that I cover my expenses in doing so and maybe even fund my unhealthy game acquisition habit.

A little more concretely, I have come to realise that there have been a number of milestones that I got a bit excited about when they happened, and a load more that I am looking forward to, many of which are achievable, but some are extremely unlikely, to say the least.  So, in the spirit of distracting myself from doing something more productive, I made a list of some of the milestones I could think of...
  • Have an entry for a game on BGG.  This was I Know an Old Woman, in 2015.
  • Have someone other than me logging a BGG play for my game.  Same game, though this was a personal friend.  It was last year's March Hares that was the first with plays logged by a complete stranger to me.
  • Have someone rating my game on BGG.  As with the logging, March Hares was my first game rated by strangers, but IKaOW got a rating first.
  • Sign a game for publication.  Nearly a year ago, not one, but two games!
  • Have a physical copy of my published game. Still waiting for this, but should be in the next few months.
  • Receiving royalties for the first time.  Hopefully before the end of this year.
  • Have someone with more logged plays of one of my games on BGG than I do.  It's actually close on March Hares, but not quite there - I think I need a professionally published game (coming really soon...) to achieve this one.
  • Have a game with enough BGG ratings to have a ranking.  I believe the threshold is something like 35 ratings, so fingers crossed.
  • Have a BGG top 1000 ranked game.  I don't think my first two released games will exactly set the BGG ratings alight (not really the target audience), but I can hope for this if I manage to get something released that works well for the hobby game market.
  • Have a "1" rating on BGG from that guy who rates almost everything a "1".  It's a badge of honour!
  • Have a BGG top 100 ranked game.  This is one that I doubt I will ever achieve as it is quite an exclusive club, but if it happens I suspect I'll be buying the drinks!
  • Have a game published that is a collaboration with another designer. I'm hoping to make progress with collaborations one of these days, so it could happen.
  • Be published by more than one publisher.  If the plan to start pitching games in earnest this year, I might be able to tick this off in the next couple of years or so.
  • Have someone asking me to sign their copy of one of my games.   This has actually already happened -- someone who bought one of the preview copies of Giftmas from us at Essen asked for an autograph. A weird feeling.
  • Have a game published in a language other than English.  No idea how likely this is, or how soon it might happen, but it's possible if one of my games does reasonably well.
  • Have an expansion published for one of my games.  Well, Shooting Party is eminently expandable, and I can think of some expansion options for Invaded, so it could happen.
  • Have a game I designed reviewed by Tom Vassal.  Or any video reviewer really, but Tom would be a kinda landmark, I guess.  (Maybe bonus points if he throws the game out the window.)
OK, so that's a bit of time wasted.  Maybe now I have that out of my mind I can get on with something else now... :)


The Crew is Still Scurvy

Over Christmas I started thinking about Scurvy Crew, a game I was working on ages ago, before I discovered the 24 hour game design contests or the Playtest UK community.  It has been sitting on the shelf for nearly two and a half years, having got to a state where it was playable but not particularly enjoyable.  One of the issues was that I had got about half of the game working fine, but the other half, which was basically the bit that allowed you to score points and win the game, was terrible.

The decent (though still flawed) part of the game was crewing a pirate ship by collecting cards and building a tableau in front of you, and the mechanism of either discarding cards from the tableau or taking them back into hand in order to trigger special actions.  However, hunting and capturing merchant ships was, at various times, boring, fiddly, and/or anticlimatic.

Me versus me in a battle for treasure on the high seas.
So I had an idea about how to handle hunting merchants, which kinda turns that aspect of the game from a make-a-decision-take-a-chance mechanism to a more Euro-style system, which involves overcoming a series of challenges by expending crew resources, and rewards coming when all the challenges have been completed according to who has done the most.  Yes, this is more or less an area control game, which doesn't sound too piratey, but I wanted to give it a try.

This required a fair bit of chopping and changing the game around, which I did over the last week or two, until I finally had myself a playable prototype again.  Where possible, it is worth doing a bit of solo testing before arm-twisting my friends into giving it a go, so I have done just that and can report that the game seems to have improved.  I didn't have a system for player-vs-player attacks, and I think the game is currently weaker because of it, but other than that, I think I have at least taken a step in the right direction.  It's worth sorting out the PvP aspect before the game leaves the house, but it feels nice to make some progress with an old design.


2018, Here We Go!

Having looked back at how things went for me last year, it's time to look at what I hope to do this year from a game design point of view.  Several of these are pretty much based on things I either didn't do, or only partly achieved last year.

First off, pitching and pushing my games.  A couple of objectives...

1. Having failed to do so last year, I will get more organised and submit one of my games for showing at UK Games Expo via either the Wyvern's Lair or the Speed Dating event (or both).  Even if I don't get picked, the application process would be good.

2. I will try my best to arrange at least a small number of pitch meetings with publishers at UK Games Expo.  It would also be cool if I could sort out something similar for Essen, but I'll count that as bonus points rather than the main objective.
Bonus objective: I will try to make this work!

And relating to contests...

3. This is more or less a "carry on" one, but I'll aim to take part in the 24 Hour Design Contest at least three times during the year.  With other stuff going on it's easy to ignore this, but I really consider it a useful exercise, and a great way to give myself manageable challenges to keep myself from getting stuck in a rut.

4. A little more ambitiously, I'll aim to enter a bigger contest.  The one that comes to mind is the Hippodice contest in the Autumn, so that is the big target.  Again, this isn't really about winning, but about the process, and if I get some useful feedback somewhere along the line that is even better.

General design, development and testing...

5. I will be a bit more proactive with the couple of collaborative projects that I have more-or-less on the go from last year and see if they can go anywhere (it's entirely possible that they are dead ends, which is fine, the same as with my own projects). Furthermore I'll get talking to more people and aim to get at least one more collaboration started by the end of the year.

6.  Playtesting.  Last year I did a lot better than I have previously, with two groups of fine individuals who I periodically managed to lure into my games room to test prototypes, and I went along to Playtest UK meetups when I could, but this still isn't enough.  I'm not going to put a specific target on this, partly as playtesting is relying largely on the goodwill of others and I don't want to overimpose, but I will try to do more playtesting than last year -- and smarter playtesting to make the most of what testing I do manage to do.

Let's see how we do with this...


What I Did on My 2017

Performance review time! How did I do against those plans and objectives I gave myself last year?

So I said I wanted to have a portfolio of at least a couple of "pitchable" games, and also that I would have at least one pitch meeting at UK Games Expo.  The latter didn't happen at all, and the portfolio isn't really there yet, though I could probably start pitching Invaded if I found the right publisher, and I think Boogie Knights is pretty much locked in, so notwithstanding another edit of the rulebook, I have one in the portfolio!  Grade E: some progress, but missed overall.

I was also planning to submit a game to the Wyvern's Lair at UKGE.  This was looking like it was going to be Invaded, but development of that got thrown way off by a Crazy Project, of which I will write a little later, and as the submission deadline approached, I was so far off a stable game that I just backed out.  This was definitely the right decision, as development of Invaded since then has made it a far better game (in my opinion) than it would have been if I'd rushed in a submission.  Grade F: I'm totally OK with this, but it's still a stone cold fail.

This is how I spent quite a lot of my year.

Next up, collaborative designs, of which I planned to get involved in at least one...  Well, I have started two of these, but neither have progressed very far yet.  One is a cooperative game based on another designer's initial ideas; I got an initial prototype running (though it was very dull) and handed it over, where my partner has brought things along a bit further, but we haven't moved it on since then.  The other collaboration was based on a series of jokey conversations at UK Games Expo, which resulted in a not-entirely-serious but sort of plausible idea for a dexterity-based worker placement game; in this case I have made a very basic prototype, but not enough to hand over yet.  So, steps in the right direction here.  Grade C: OK, but must try harder!

Rulebook assistance...  I didn't do much of this in 2017, but I provided occasional comments on people's work in BGG forums, and did a couple of more thorough (though still informat) reviews of prototype rulebooks in the spring.  I also had a request for assistance from someone (Plan Play Games) who I had helped in the last couple of years, who wanted a proof read of the English translation of their planned Essen Release.  I was happy to help again, and as a result of this and my debut trip to Essen SPIEL (more on which later) I am now the proud possessor of a copy of this game (Photo Finish -- it's a speed puzzle-solving game) as well as their previous year's release (Peter and the Grown Ups -- a memory and bluffing game), both with my name credited in the rulebook. Always nice when that happens!   Grade B: good, but still room for improvement.

That pretty much covers what I had planned, but plenty of other things happened.  I've had a bit of an up and down year from a morale point of view, so I'm going to concentrate on positives here in case I need to remind myself in future that I did achieve quite a bit.

The highlight of the year has to be that I signed not one, but two games for publication, one of which has been available to buy in a very limited (30 copies!) edition at Essen.  As you may recall from earlier posts, the first of these games is Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey, which is based on the print and play game I made as a party favour back in 2016, with totally awesome new art, and the other is Dungeon Abbey: The Shooting Party, which was effectively a commissioned design based on a thematic outline document that the publisher, Cubicle 7, showed me.  I don't know the exact production status of these games, but excitingly, both games are starting to show up in online retailers (I've only seen US sites so far) for pre-order, so clearly information has been released to the distribution channels.  I'll be shouting about this a lot when I have any more information.

I mentioned a Crazy Project earlier, and that was the Shooting Party game, which derailed everything else I was doing during the spring, trying to get it to a state where I could hand it over to Cubicle 7.  In the second half of the year they were doing more development of the game in-house, and I have had the opportunity to give feedback and make suggestions. The last time I saw the game it was looking good and I really enjoyed playing it, so I'm really looking forward to seeing the final version.

Another huge highlight for me was my first trip the the SPIEL games fair in Essen, Germany.  I first heard about this in the early 90's, and have always wanted to go, but time, finances, and insecurities always conspired to stop me. This year, however, I tagged along with Cubicle 7 to help on their stall, which resulted in me spending four days explaining assorted game to anyone who was interested, primary among these was the recently released Cthulhu Tales storytelling card game. This was actually really useful experience in explaining the salient points of a game and its main features rather than precisely how to play -- in other words, effectively making a pitch.

UK Games Expo was also a fantastic experience.  I spent a lot of my time volunteering at the Playtest UK area, which earned me an exhibitor's pass, meaning the ability to enter the hall ahead of the throng each morning, which in turn meant that I could have early morning chats with assorted people before they had to turn to business.  Aside from that it was fascinating to help out at the designer-publisher speed dating event, where I could see just how intense such an event could be -- it's a real trial by fire, running through a 5 minute pitch with a dozen or so different publishers in very quick succession.

Last year I also got back in the saddle regarding the 24 hour game design contest on Board Game Geek, submitting four games, and winning twice!  The contest is far more about taking part than winning (and it has been seen in the past that, should you care, it is not hard to astroturf your way to victory) but getting a win from time to time is really good for morale -- and I have certainly had at least my fair share of wins.  At Easter, I also gave a short talk about my experiences with the contest at the "BG Dev Con" event, and I know it inspired at least one other designer to have a go themselves, which is gratifying.

Another bonus for the year was that I found another game designer working for my employer, and we ended up regularly having lunch together and playing a game, testing one of our prototypes if it was available and suitable for a quick play, or doing a "show and tell", playing a short game that had some interesting feature that we could discuss afterwards.  Unfortunately he has now moved on to a new job, but the experience was both fun and very useful. (Check out Woodstock Games if you want to see what Phil is working on.)

Finally the games themselves.  I've worked on quite a few games over the last year, some of them quite intensely, and some hardly at all.  As it stands though, I have Invaded, Boogie Knights, and My Name Is... all into a pretty stable condition, a bunch of older designs (like An Angel on Top, Treasures of Atlantis, and now Scurvy Crew) dusted off and developed a little more, and a heap of new designs that have some potential (Roll Move Race, Shenanigans Express, and Dirigible, to name but three).  It's also pleasing to get two more games added to the Board Game Geek database: March Hares, and Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey.

There's all sorts of other stuff that I could talk about, and while I haven't achieved everything I wanted to do, and I did have dead time where I got nowhere, I think I can be happy with how things went last year.  It's a good foundation which should set me up to really push forward in 2018.  And that will be the subject of another post in the next few days or so...

2018-01-04 Edit to add...
I forgot to mention that I have been a bit better at arranging playtesting sessions at my house, and I owe a huge thank you to those fine people who turn up for the occasional-Monday and occasional-Tuesday sessions.  You have all been awesome and helped so very much.