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...