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.


Back From the Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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