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!