December Roundup

Another month nearly escapes me without a post. It hasn't been the most productive month from a game design point of view, but I did manage to get some stuff done.

Right at the end of November was the Dragonmeet convention in London, which I have attended for the last few years as part of the PlaytestUK team. We run an area for game designers to get their prototypes played by regular convention goers rather than the usual PlaytestUK meetups which are mostly designers playing each other's games.  I spent the first few hours helping to staff the area, which largely involves inviting passing gamers to join a game. This is usually a bit hard going at the start of the day, but as time passes you get more people just turning up looking for something to play.

I had a slot for playtesting myself in the afternoon, and introduced Tom Coldron's game Elvic to two different groups.  Things went very well overall, with players being well engaged, but a few issues were raised, largely relating to balance between certain options (some cards are perceived as strictly  better or worse than others), which need to be at least considered.  I've now sent the current play set back to Tom with some notes about how things have been going, so we'll see what he thinks.

Elvic at Dragonmeet.

Other than that, I got discussing a game idea with another of the designers there who was also volunteering at the same time as me. He had an idea about making a game that is largely about tactility and recognising items by the sense of touch alone, and our discussions moved towards a development of this. We've both been tinkering with this idea since, and have been communicating, and a basic version of a game is starting to form. Hopefully we'll be able to get together some time soon (we don't live too far apart) to see if we can develop things more in person.

Other than that it has been Scurvy Crew. I've not had playtesting opportunities on this, but I have worked a lot of ideas from discussions with BrainCrack into a new version of the prototype.  The basic gameplay is not changing significantly, but we are working on the campaign mode, which allows you to play a series of games (we're planning 7, to match the 7 seas and all that) with development of threats and opportunities as you work through it.  Plus, with the game being a relatively short one, the aim is to make it so that you can binge your way through the campaign in a day (maybe even an afternoon) should you wish. Anyway, I think the first official announcements about the game are likely to happen in the next couple of months, so we'll see how things go...

Anyway, I think this will be about it from me for the year.  I hope you have a good Christmas or whatever else you might celebrate at this time of year. Back soon... :)


Remember remember the rest of November

I seem to have slumped to a monthly blog posting schedule here, which is not exactly ideal, but is better than nothing, I guess.  With the nights drawing in I've been finding myself a bit tired and sluggish on many fronts, but I've not been completely off the game design path.  Most of my efforts over the last month have been working on one of three projects which are at very different stages.

Explore and Settle

This is an old design that I alluded to in last month's post, and one that has a pretty misleading name. It's what you could describe as a "3X" game (explore, expand, exploit, but not exterminate), and it is based on cards that overlap to form a grid of squares, but the additional "tab" of the card (the bit beyond the square) has a game effect until it is covered over, as well as providing uses when played from hand. The core mechanism is pretty fine, and gets a bit brain-burny (more than anything else I have designed), but overall the game is just not compelling, so I need to find an "angle" to use, and it may require a major redesign. 
At least it's prettier than it used to be.

This was the game that I took to this month's London playtesting meetup, as well as coming out for another game designer meetup I was at, and I got some interesting feedback, but I'm struggling to figure out how best to move forward.

Scurvy Crew

I'm still in a development phase here, working on building the campaign mode of the game. We have some really interesting ideas bouncing around for how we can carry threads on from game to game. There'll be missions and changing threats and opportunities through the campaign, but things aren't locked down enough for me to be able to talk about them much at the moment.


This is the game designed by Tom Coldron that I've been doing some experimental development on. It's a fast-playing game (usually takes about 15 minutes), so we usually get to have at least a couple of plays in a row, often trying a small rules tweak in between to compare and contrast.  Small and quick games are so much easier to playtest. :)

I think I'm getting to the end of a development arc with this game though, so I have one last round of playtesting coming up (see below) and then, unless that opens up some new avenues that I want to explore, I think I'll probably send it back to Tom and see what the original designer thinks of the ways I have destroyed his original idea!


It's that time of year. As I write this, I'm avoiding getting ready for Dragonmeet, which is on tomorrow in London (Hammersmith, actually), though actually I've got most of what I need to do done.  I'll me spending most of the day at the Playest UK stand -- volunteering there until 2pm, after which I'll have a couple of hours playtesting the latest version (of mine) of Elvic.  If you are there (if you are in the area and want something to do, why not come along?), please swing by and say hello.


Recent Weeks

I definitely seem to have fallen off the blogging bicycle recently, but I have been chugging along with game design work over the last few weeks, even if I've not been charging forwards. So, just to get things going again, here are some of the things I got up to...

I had a really good playtesting and development session with Dave and Robin, other game designers who I meet up with most months. We've missed a couple of months for assorted reasons, but this got us back into the swing of things again and I was able to run tests of a couple of my projects as well as some of theirs.
Familiar cards, unfamiliar table, but with ships from Seafall (I think!)
Another really useful session was a trip to meet with Lewis from Braincrack Games to work on Scurvy Crew, face-to-face. This was the first time we had actually been able to play the game together, and it resulted in some great ideas bouncing around and some interesting plans made. I can't say too much right now as a lot is up in the air, but the plan is to provide the game with a campaign mode where you get to play a series of games, building your crew and improving your ship as well as meeting new challenges as you go along.

The monthly playtesting session in London happened last week and once again I took Elvic, Tom Coldron's game, where we had a couple of plays with a small tweak (a card being face-up instead of face-down, thus giving more information to players) between plays.  This game is so fast that playtest groups are often happy to do this, which makes iteration quicker than I am used to for other games. A lesson here, perhaps?

Other than that, I have been rummaging through my archives, and pulled an old project from 2016 back onto the table to see what I can do with it.  I've found a little inspiration here, so rather than discussing that right now, I'll post something more detailed about it shortly...


Something old, something new, something borrowed

This has been a bit of a tricky post to write. Trying to get the balance right in a couple of ways. I'm not sure I've succeeded. You judge.

So a couple of weeks or so ago I received a proposal from a friend and fellow game designer, Tom Coldron, who had a game that he had got working but wanted someone else to spend some time looking at it, and was wondering if I would be interested in this, and in exchange he would do the same for one of my games.  This sounded like a great idea to me, so I sent Tom the files for Boogie Knights (which works, but isn't really satisfactory), and he sent me a game called Elvic.

Elvic is a small game designed to fit in a mint tin, and is what I would describe as an area control game with action selection.  Slightly less jargony: each round players have access to a card which gives them a couple of options, and they select the way they use that card to put tokens onto cards representing regions in the kingdom, then you score points at the end of the game according to whether or not they have the most tokens in each region.

Mid-game for our first play at the Jugged Hare.
I got to try the game out with one of my local groups, and found that we liked the game in general but were frustrated by one particular aspect, and we experimented with tweaks to this in a second play. These changes didn't really do what I wanted it to, but at least gave some ideas for me to work with, largely due to some great suggestions from the playtesters.

This is the bit I've been having trouble with as I don't want to put down Tom's work at all (he's made -- aside from that issue -- a cracking game that I enjoyed playing and that I wouldn't have made myself) or say that I have solved his problem, or even that the issue we saw was one that existed for any other group.  I've been finding it really interesting to explore someone else's design and tweak it to see if it suits me (and my playtesters) a little more.

Anyway, a few days later, and with a slightly modified game, it was a day for a trip to London for playtesting, so for the first time I went along bearing somebody else's game. We had a four-player game that took the lower end of what I was expecting the play time to be, and my colleagues kindly agreed to have another play straight away. 

There was actually relatively little feedback articulated at the end, just a few relatively minor points, and play involved some furrowed brows and growling at a number of the decisions.  Normally it's good to have a decent discussion about the game, but I'd picked up plenty of information through play, and we wanted to move on to allow another designer to test their game after I had been hogging table time.  In both plays of Elvic, over the last couple of rounds there was a certain amount of counting up potential scores in order to optimise moves, which didn't take long, and suited the headspace the players were in, but might be a negative for some players. I think this is largely just a feature of this style of game, trying to optimise your endgame to eke out those last few victory points.

Overall this was a really encouraging session and suggested that the game might be moving in the right direction (it was pretty close beforehand) but I want to see a few more playtests, with assorted player counts (I've not yet tried it with two players) and levels of gaming experience (remember that this day's testers were all game designers) before I hand it back to Tom to see what he makes of my suggested changes. Thanks for the opportunity, Tom!

I'm also really looking forward to see what he thinks of for Boogie Knights, as and when.


Jugged Teeth

The very first 24 Hour Contest design I made was a game called Tooth Fairies, back in early 2015. It is a game where players are tooth fairies, exchanging coins for children's teeth, which are collected into sets to be presented to the fairy king and queen, who give out rewards to their loyal subjects. Mechanically you are picking up cards from a row of available teeth (though some are rotten, and some are just useless lumps of chewed gum) and when you have a set that matches one of the "missions" from the king or queen, you collect a reward from them. The game is aimed at being a quick, family friendly game.

Anyway, I was recently looking through my old projects and was inspired to get this one out and take a look at it.  The game seemed at least OK, so I gave it a once-over to pad out some elements and smooth some others, built a fresh prototype, and took it along to this month's London weekend playtest meetup.

The game flowed OK overall, but the way the row of available tooth cards functioned meant that it needed constant sliding of cards, a maintenance task that went smoothly enough as one player was automatically handling it most of the time, but one that made for a grinding feeling that should really be got rid of.  The set up I used meant that the game would have been far too long if we hadn't removed half of the mission cards, and the players complained about the balance of the demands of the missions and the rewards for them.

As regular readers may know, I tend to not worry about game balance until I have a game that flows pretty well, so I'm not worried about these comments at the moment, other than that if players are fixating on a balance issue it means that there probably isn't enough in the game to make up for these perceived problems.

Overall, the structure of the game was reminiscent of another, and sufficiently so that my players couldn't help but saying that the game felt like a sub-standard Century: Spice Road. I can see where they are coming from on that.  I think that, while the game is very much not a lightweight engine builder like Century, the comparison is inevitable as things stand, so I need to address that. 

Structurally, I think the problem is that my row of tooth cards invites the unfavourable comparison and causes the constant, small upkeep tasks, so I need to find some way for players to collect teeth, which must also, for thematic reasons, involve paying coins for those teeth.  I'll be sleeping on this some more, but I think that there will probably be some system along the lines of periodically flopping a selection of tooth cards and coming up with a system for players to claim them.  Work to do...


More than a score at DevCon 4

On Saturday I attended the fourth mini-conference known  as BG Dev Con, hosted in Enfield (those of us not from London regard it as part of London, about which I gather we are incorrect!) by Bez Shahriari and Andy Yangou. I missed last year's event, but attended the first two and had a great time at both.  The key to this event is that, while it is a gathering comprising mostly game designers (from unpublished rookies to grizzled veterans with many published titles), with a few other folk with compatible interests, there is no playtesting allowed. The day is focused on talking and sharing experience.

About 2/3 of the attendees. Thanks to Dave Wetherall (of the Guild of Good Games) for the pic.
For me, the heart of the event is that everyone is encouraged to get up and speak, if only to introduce themselves for two minutes, and most of the rest of the day is shortish talks (many only around 10 minutes) on a huge variety of subjects, not all of which are obvious at first. This year we had a couple of different perspectives on art, a talk about using games in language teaching, another on the mechanics of parcel delivery services, some thoughts on the design of freeform LARPs, and a comparison of game design with the scientific method.

There were planned sessions of speed designing/concepting and some parallel discussions, but these didn't occur as the group was relatively small (I made it 24 of us) and everyone wanted to stick together rather than split the party. This resulted in some of the planned longer talks being sped up so that they could be fitted in, meaning that we lost a little detail, but the day kept up its high tempo.

Of course, this frantic pace gets very tiring, but there were several breaks of about 15 minutes (as well as the hour-ish for lunch) giving everyone a chance to grab refreshments, take their ease, and chat about the matters discussed so far.  This seemed to work very well.

So, overall an exhausting day with a lot to think about and a great opportunity to get to know a group of reasonably-like-minded people a load better -- and make some new friends along the way.  There is another run of the meet planned for mid-August next year (dates to be confirmed), but I'll be along again if I am able.  Thanks to everyone involved for a great day.


Developing Scurvy

Having signed Scurvy Crew to be published is far from being the end of the story from my point of view.  Different publishers work in different ways when it comes to developing games for publication, and the deal I have here is that I work with the Brain Crack Games to tweak the game into a form they are happier with before they finally hit the Big Red Button to make the game (with the help of a Kickstarter project).  I say "happier" because they were clearly keen enough on the game to sign it, but there are improvements that can turn the game into the actual product they want to ship. This is normal.

I'm not going to go into great detail about what we are doing yet, as a lot is in flux and it's not appropriate for me to be shouting about things that as yet may or may not be in the game, but we have been discussing a few tweaks and I have been trying out some of them with my playtest groups.
The prototype is still looking pretty scruffy, but there are plans forming to make something really nice.
The main intent is to add some more variability into the game, with more variety of merchant ships that can be captured as prizes as well as other things that can be found while hunting for booty, and a new mechanism allowing pirates to gain upgrades to give them additional capabilities.  It is interesting that I spent most of the six months leading up to successfully pitching the game pulling mechanics out and generally simplifying, but now we are adding a little complexity back in. Only a little, mind you, and all the new stuff is modular, so can actually be ignored safely for a lighter game.

This is the first time I have been through a process like this, with me doing development under the guidance of a third party, and I'm enjoying it so far, even though it is pulling my attention away from some other projects I would like to concentrate on.  Still, there is an end to the process, probably in a few more months or so, after which it will be mostly out of my hands and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the box ends up.

A small aside to finish off with: last week I received my Kickstarter copy of Ragusa, the new game by Fabio Lopiano (designer of the excellent Calimala), from Brain Crack Games. They've done a cracking job of making a great game (if you like mid-weight Euro games, watch out for more games from Fabio in the next few years -- he's very good at them) into a beautiful product, so I'm even happier working with them for one of my games.



I've done very little work over the last year on Invaded, my game about being on the receiving end of a colonial invasion, but that doesn't mean that I have stopped thinking about it.  By May/June last year I think I was hitting a bit of a wall with it  -- for the previous year or so it had been a major focus of effort for me, and maybe I was burning out with it a bit.  Having a project staying on the shelf for a while is not a bad thing, though, as sometimes it means I can detach myself from the details and come back with a fresh perspective.  That worked with Scurvy Crew, and I feel it is about time to take another look at Invaded.

This is another "not actually done anything" post, like my recent one about puffins wearing hats.  I feel I need to make sure I don't fall into the trap of constantly writing about things I am planning to do rather than actually doing anything but, conversely, writing things down and sharing them can sometimes help keep me moving forward. I hope you will bear with me.

In case you aren't familiar with Invaded, the outline is that you are a tribe in a relatively peaceful land that has just been invaded by a powerful (non-player) colonial force that wants your land and your resources. It's a competitive game where you win by surviving the invasion the "best", though there are opportunities to change the way you score along the way, and as a result, strategies could involve trying to run and hide, collaborating, or fighting back. The actions of the colonial power are decided by the players by playing colonial activity cards: when it is your turn you take one action for your tribe, and one on behalf of the colonial power, and those actions generally tend to make the invaders expand their base, build forts, and attack the native tribes.
This is how Invaded looked in its very first playable version.
It has come a long way since then.
Anyhoo...  With some distance from my last substantive change, it is clear that there are several structural issues with the game that I had been trying to avoid thinking about too hard, including...
  • The game has a lengthy player reference sheet that is largely reminding players of the actions available to them, and players usually initially spend a lot of time referring to this. Actually there are two sheets: the second is an icon reference.  Complex (or, at least, lengthy) reference materials may be an indicator of problems in the understandability of a game that is, or should be, relatively straightforward to play.
  • The central "aggression" tracking board is a bit of a kludge, and several aspects of the game require cross-referencing with this board to see how those other elements behave. For instance, the colonial activity cards have different options based on the aggression level of the invaders, and it is easy to make mistakes with this.
  • The fact that players make a move using a card and a move from a menu of options using pieces on the board feels like there are different mechanisms for different parts of what they do on their turn. Which there are. The different mechanisms, while arguably justified, do add a cognitive load on the players and leads to questions.
I have been pondering this all and am now starting to think that I may be ready to make some serious changes. I have a few notes, but basically I need to find some time to knuckle down and retool the entire game with the biggest change in components for a very long time.  It's worth a try and if it doesn't work out, I will be able to roll back, so it's just time (and a load of toner and some cardstock) at risk here.  A quick outline of what I am planning to do:

  • Instead of the colonial activity deck I will try having a deck of cards with combined tribal and colonial actions. As with the recent iterations, you will have a hand of cards and choose what order to play them in, and will be able to decide whether to play the tribal or colonial action first, but you must do both if you are able. Playing tribal actions from cards will remove the need for the "menu" player aid.
  • You will start with an initial hand of "low intensity" activity cards, which you keep from round to round, but as the game progresses you will gain additional cards which allow more powerful actions, but which also make the colonial power more aggressive, and you will be able to get rid of your starter cards over time.
  • This may not be needed, but I will probably replace the aggression board with a small event deck, which gradually ramps up the game's intensity.  The developing hands of action cards will be another way to build intensity without needing the tracker board.
  • The strategy/upgrade cards may no longer be needed, but I'll probably leave them for now, though making adjustments for the other changes taking places.
  • Not really necessary, but I feel an urge to retool the location cards, partly to rejig the resource distribution, though I may turn them into actual hexagonal tiles to make everything look a little nicer as we move forward.
As a bonus little aside, there's also the theme to consider. This is an odd one actually: the game is very much linked to its theme (that of being at the receiving end of a colonial invasion, which is a push back against a common trope in board games), but I have shied away from actually linking the game to a specific location or period of history.  I was talking about Invaded with a publisher recently (one who I wouldn't expect to publish it, but who expressed general interest) and they said that I should stop being so squeamish and give the game a defined setting, which should give it some more character and make it more initially appealing, even if that setting gets changed for publication.

I'm thinking about this and am considering setting up an alternate world of some sort, so as not to commit to something historical, but at least to tie everything to something a little more coherent and less vague.  We'll see.


Puffins In Hats

As I have been drawing a picture every day this year, some themes have developed, more or less without planning, and one of those is puffins. I think I have drawn more puffins than anything else, and I have semi-joked on a few occasions that I would make a game about puffins at some point in the near future. The problem was that I had no coherent idea to base such a game on. Would the game be based on actual puffin behaviour? Would it have an ecological message? (After all, puffins, via their food supplies, are vulnerable to climate change as has been seen by the recent population crash in Pacific Tufted Puffins.) Or would I go for something lighter and cuter?

Then one day, completely on a whim I drew a few sketches of slightly cartoony puffins wearing assorted hats.
Day 183: Puffins in Hats.

I'm not sure why I did that, but I had a load of enthusiastic feedback about it through social media and then the phrases "puffins in hats" and "nuffin' but cats" came to mind. Any pretence of a worthy, serious (ish) game went out of the window and I couldn't think of anything but that. 

Given that pair of phrases, my brain went to a game where you have cards, most of which have puffins on them, in an assortment of hats, and you are trying to collect either a variety of different hats, or all the same type of hat.  Some of the cards have cats on, though, and the cats chase away puffins, "poison" your hand, or otherwise cause you problems, so you are trying to avoid getting them. BUT, if you end up with "nuffin' but cats", you win the game (or at least the hand), a bit like "shooting the moon" in other games like, for example, Hearts.

I'm musing over ways to make this happen at the moment, and there are a load of options on how to do it: drafting cards in some way, auctioning, trick taking, etc.  My current favourite is a variation on trick taking, where everyone starts with a mixed hand of cards, and plays a card in turn (not quite sure on the way this is controlled right now), and whoever "wins" the trick (i.e. everyone plays a card and the "top" card is determined by some rule -- probably based on the cards having numerical values) takes all the cards into their hand. If they have a "legal hand" (a bit like going out in Gin Rummy), they declare it and win the hand, otherwise they start a fresh trick. If you win a trick and there is a cat in it, then you lose one or more cards, but if there is more than one cat in the trick, then it is handled in a different way which I am not sure about; maybe the highest value cat player wins in that case and something special happens.

I don't think this would be stable as it stands, and the changing hand sizes and the lack of cards actually leaving play (as usually happens in a trick-taking game) could be a problem, so I need to work on that.

Anyway, this is all just ideas at the moment, while I should be thinking about other things, but I thought I would write down and share my current state as it might encourage me to take the game forwards at some time.  I should actually be able to play a very basic test of the game using a regular deck of playing cards, to at least work out the general flow of play, though I think I probably want more than four suits (or hats) for this game. 


Mid-Year Musings

We're now just past half way through 2019, which seems a good time to do a little reflection to see how things are going this year.

Well, the big, rainbow-striped elephant on a bouncy castle in the middle of the room is, of course, the fact that I have a game newly signed for publication and another being evaluated by a different publisher, so by rookie game designer standards, that makes this year a rollocking success right away.  I'm happy to take that all as a win regardless of anything else.

Other than that, though, how are things going?

My basic plans were to "enter contests, pitch more games, work with other people more, playtest more", and I have had mixed success with that. I've only entered one contest (a 24 hour contest), and have talked about collaboration with a couple of other designers but we've not really got anything off the ground yet. I have done pretty well with playtesting with other designers (trips to London as well as more local sessions), but been less successful at organising playtesting sessions with "normal" gamers.  The pitching has gone well though: I have only done limited pitching so far, but I have had the good fortune to be aiming the right games at the right publishers so far, with one game signed and one still being evaluated.  On that last point, if you are interested, I haven't chased it up as it has only been a little over a month and, from talking to other designers, it seems that two to three months seems a sensible timescale for follow-ups.

A recent playtest of Scurvy Crew, coming along nicely.

I'm still reading assorted history books, albeit slowly, mostly based on the early middle ages (Saxon to Angevin), and the plan was to take some ideas and turn them into games, and I've not got any of that done yet, but a few stories are making me think and I may find a game in them sometime. For instance, there is Henry the Young King, basically Henry 2.5, who was crowned co-king but pre-deceased his father so was never king in his own right, and spent much of his (brief) adult life touring Europe with a spectacular entourage, competing in tournaments.  Or the fascinating Nicola de la Haye, who held several normally male positions, including Sheriff of Lincolnshire through the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. I'll still intend to make something built on these or similar stories.

Sharing playable games online was another aim, and the only non-contest game I have shared was a couple of iterations of Scurvy Crew, which is one that has been shared in various forms over the years, but as it had been languishing for a long time, I'll count that one.  Still more to do though.

Aside from game-related objectives, I have continued in my exercise to draw (and share online) something every day.  As I write this, it is day 190, and I have a folder on my laptop with 190 scanned drawings in it, which feels like quite an achievement.  Many of the pictures have been of puffins, and I have joked a few times that I will make a game about puffins using some of these pictures; ideas are starting to come, so this may actually end up happening.

Aside from puffins I've been doing assorted exercises like,
for example, these longsword guard positions.

Finally I was planning to keep working on developing my proofreading and editing skills. I have proofread a handful of rulebooks so far this year, so keeping it ticking over, but I have not been pushing it too hard.  I do need to take advantage of my "Society for Editors and Proofreaders" membership and take another training course or two, though.

So overall, while I haven't made too much progress in my original plans, I am progressing overall. Just reviewing here is quite useful to remind myself of how I could keep myself moving forwards.


Scurvy Contracts

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may know that my pirate game, Scurvy Crew, has been in the works for a long time.  OK, so it has spent a lot of the time on the shelf, but occasionally brought out for another round or two of development.  I eventually got the game to a state where I felt I could show it to publishers, and I approached a couple of publishers I thought might be most interested in the game, had a meeting with one of them at UK Games Expo, and they took a prototype from me.

Over the following couple of weeks I had assorted messages from the publisher, who played the game at least a couple of times (maybe more, I don't know) and started enthusiastically coming up with ideas to turn my game into their product.  And as a result of this and some to-and-fro discussion, I am pleased to announce that, as of today, Scurvy Crew is under contract to be published by Braincrack Games.
This is what the top of a contract sometimes looks like.
There's a lot of personal and business confidential stuff in there, so this is all you get to see!

If you don't know them, Braincrack is a small UK-based publisher with a steadily growing range of games.  Their first title, Downsize, is a nice, lightweight cardgame that we have played and enjoyed at work a bunch of times.  More recently, I was really impressed with their smallish-box tile game, Dead and Breakfast.  And I am really looking forward to getting hold of the currently-on-a-ship Ragusa, by the designer of the excellent Calimala, Fabio Lopiano.  Add to that the fact that they have a game on the way by the fantastic David Turczi, and this is a stable of games that I am absolutely delighted to be a part of.  I must admit that I am more than a bit nervous.

Anyway, that is where we are at right now.  There will now be a period of development where I work with the Braincrack team to turn the game that I am proud of into the final product that they want to publish.  Ideas are bouncing around at the moment, but I can't really reveal anything yet other than to say that there may be a change to the game's title, and that it is planned for a Kickstarter project some time next year. 

Other than that, I will be blogging and tweeting about this from time to time, but as we are now working on a product, and there is someone else's business involved, I can't really be completely open about everything that is going on all the time.  I'm looking forward to the process though.


Expos and Pirates and Castles, Oh My!

That was quite some weekend! I was at UK Games Expo from Thursday afternoon (the day before it started) until it closed on Sunday afternoon, when it closed, and I am now home, tired but very happy about how things went.  Here are some only slightly organised thoughts.

I'll start with the most exciting part for me: I had a couple of meetings to pitch game designers to publishers, and both went extremely well, and the upshot is that Scurvy Crew and The Castle War are both now being evaluated by publishers to consider for publication.  This is still a long way from actually being published, or even a contract being signed, but it's great to even get this far.  I'm not going to say who the publishers are right now, but if anything comes of either of these, I will let you know what I am able.

The main focus for my days was, once again, the Playtest Zone, this time hidden in the back corner of the enormous Hall 1, where I was volunteering for all three of the mornings, and the main task was trying to match players up with designers at the tables, and be there to answer questions and offer general help.  This can be quite a challenge first thing in the morning, when most people at the convention are wanting to explore and see everything before settling down to play things, or they are specifically looking for the latest hotness, but later in the end, we tend to see people wandering in, looking for something to play, and the challenge is then to find a designer needing players. 

The games presented varied from hand-drawn early prototypes, right up to beautifully presented and professionally printed games that are ready to publish.  I often have a bit of a grumble about people using the space as a cheap way to promote their upcoming Kickstarter, of which there are always a few every year, but it doesn't really do any harm and it's probably not particularly efficient marketing. Also, more serious vetting of games would just antagonise people unnecessarily and would risk making it harder for new designers to get onboard, and that is against the ethos of the space.

I failed to take photos other than a couple of this playtest of Scurvy Crew.
I had a 90 minute slot for playtesting Scurvy Crew, during which I hoped to get a couple of plays through (it usually takes about 30 minutes), but in the event we only managed one play as one of my three players was finding the game confusing and hard going.  This was entirely my fault: I was watching the two players opposite me as I explained everything and they got on well with everything, but I didn't check the guy sitting next to me, who it turned out wasn't used to playing hobby games, so would have appreciated a more thorough explanation with fewer shortcuts. Eventually (rather too late) I realised what was going on, apologised and stressed that his misunderstanding was my fault and not his, and helped him through a couple of turns, after which he started to get more comfortable and make more solid decisions. 

Aside from the issue with the struggling player, the game played pretty smoothly and engaged the players who found a couple of different approaches to playing. The players gave a few useful pieces of feedback, but mostly gave me a little extra confidence in the game, which didn't fall apart in any real way.

Later in the afternoon I had another play (I'd count it as a play rather than a proper playtest) with a couple of friends who wanted to check it out, and I actually really enjoyed playing it without feeling that I had to take notes or feedback.  All good for the confidence.

On Friday evening there was the Designer-Publisher Networking Event, which is ostensibly an opportunity for designers and publishers to meet in an informal setting, but there were few publishers, and to be fair, I'm not sure many of them would have welcomed being hassled by a swarm of us rookie designers wanting to pitch games to them after a long and tiring day.  What it was in practice was a comparatively relaxed opportunity to have a drink and a chat with fellow designers to compare war stories, and a couple of interesting talks from Alex Yeager and James Wallis, both good speakers, and both with fun topics -- one of the games I bought in the trade halls was a direct result of one of the talks.

Aside from all this, I managed to have half-decent meals in the evenings (a definite improvement from previous years) and then spend some time with friends, old and new, playing a few games. These days it's proving not-too-hard to find gaming space in the NEC halls in the evenings (though still a nightmare at the Hilton end of the Expo), and I managed to stumble into playing with strangers on two separate evenings, which was nice.

Lots of people post pics of their "haul" from conventions, so here's mine.

So I reckon that this year was my best overall experience at UK Games Expo so far, probably helped somewhat by the fact that I was really comfortable and slept well in my hotel, another thing that rarely happens.  I'm really looking forward to next year, and need to get started on figuring out what games I'm planning to pitch at that point.


I hear the creak of the big machine...

On Sunday of last week (once again I got distracted by other things before finishing this post) was my last major playtesting opportunity before UK Games Expo, and was the monthly trip to London. I always plan to arrive long before the start of the playtesting, so I can have a relaxed coffee and sandwich by way of preparation, and this time I bumped into Bez (of Yogi/In a Bind fame, amongst others), who was training a couple of volunteers for her stall at Expo, so I got "taught" a few short games (that I happened to already know) as part of their practice, which was good fun.

The prototype games designed by others that I played were a "Simon Says" style party game, a very nearly done game of city building, a real-time (app assisted) action, and a game about not being too good at your job.  Lots of good stuff in varying stages of development.

The game I took with me was the Steampunk Workshop game, having mutated into its "Big Machine" version and lost most of the features from its first couple of iterations and become something very different.

The machine is slowly extending, but has some way to go.

So the headline news is that most of the details of the game are broken -- the balance is all to pot and there are points where things can get gummed up -- but it looks like I have finally found something approximating a game here, so I can start working on tidying up the details.

The biggest issue here was that it took too long for players to be able to afford to buy the gadgets that act as victory points and special abilities. I did end up giving everyone some additional resources part way through the game to help this, but I think it was too late to see how the gadgets really effect the game.  Furthermore, there is one of the gadgets which shunts other players around, and this was seen to be overpowered and frustrating if you aren't the person who has it.  I rather like this particular gadget, but if it turns out to be more of a problem than a benefit (and it could dictate the flavour of the game) then it will have to go.  It will be interesting to see how it works in a game where everyone has more gadgets available to them.

There were plenty of other comments and observations, but the notable point is that they were pretty much all about details rather than the big picture, which was mostly left unscathed.  So I think I now have the basis on which I can build this game.  It actually doesn't include the mechanism that got me started down the track, but that is not a particularly unusual thing to happen. 


Let's Go Expo...

If you are in the UK and care about such things, you are probably aware that UK Games Expo is coming up at the end of this month.  I'll be heading up there once again and have been making plans, as is necessary. So, here we go (everything may change, but this is the plan so far)...

I'll be heading up to the NEC on Thursday and hopefully meeting and chilling with a few people on the eve of the event proper.  The show runs from Friday to Sunday, and I have volunteered to help out in the Playtest Zone for all three mornings, so you know where to find me (stand 1-184, apparently).
A pic stolen from the UKGE website. In a game of Where's the Wally, can you spot me?
I have meetings for a chunk of Friday afternoon, pitching some games. I'm not going all-in on pitching, but have been talking to a few publishers with the intention of slowly building up relationships.  Friday evening is the Designer-Publisher networking event from 9pm, before which I hope to have something to eat and maybe even play a game.

On Saturday afternoon I am booked in to playtest Scurvy Crew from 3 to 4:30. Hopefully that will be enough time to get a couple of play-throughs, given that the game usually takes about half an hour, and only a few minutes to explain.  If you fancy having a go, come on down! (Or you can collar me any other time you find me free.)  I may end up getting another playtest slot some time, but we'll have to see.

Looking forward to seeing lots of people in a couple of weeks -- and I may even get to play a few games!


Scurvy Guild

For the last few months I've been having once-per-month-mostly meetups with a couple of game designer friends from a town that is a little over an hour's drive away from me.  Most of the time they have been coming to my house, but this month we expanded our meet to include several other designers from the general vicinity, and one of them hosted the event. This is what we considered to be the inaugural meeting of the "Wessex Guild of Game Designers", named for the ancient Saxon kingdom we live in -- they near the middle and me near the edge.

While a group of the others played a cool sounding race game in the other room, I had a couple of designers playing Scurvy Crew with me, trying out the relatively small changes I had made since last time.

As I remember, Blackbeard was about to discover a big treasure ship which Yellowbeard used all his capabilities to swoop in and steal, but received a retaliatory broadside from Blackbeard. Redbeard sought his own quarry.

The game was a little slow, but this was largely due to having a new player and doing quite a lot of chatting as we played.  Even so, the 45 minute playtime didn't seem unreasonable for the style of game. I usually use a playmat to keep the game in order, but didn't this time, and everything was fine. During play, there was a suggestion to use a supply of tokens to mark the sea spaces that have been cleared of merchants. We rolled this into play as we went; this actually worked really well, and for the cost of eight tokens, there was a nice, easy to track countdown to the end of the game. I'm now starting to think that these tokens could even have some sort of an effect, but that's probably unnecessary at this point.

The play didn't really identify any substantive problems, though I still have work to do on getting the cards balanced up properly  There was another suggestion that I liked: some of the merchant ships could provide you with additional crew when you capture them. We decided to have another play and implemented this by reducing the points value of some of the merchantmen, but allowing you to draw a card from the crew deck if you captured these ships.

This change didn't make a huge difference to the game, but it did seem to add a small extra decision sometimes, fit the theme of the game, and added almost nothing to the complexity. The numbers we used were probably not right, but the change seems to add nicely to the game, so I'll take a look at how to incorporate this in a more solid way.  This second play came in at bang on half an hour, despite being quite tactical and cagey at times; I am very happy with that.

Apart from my own game, I also tested a game about building up a town and trying to stop it falling down due to the ravages of time (the designer describes it as a "1X game"), a lightweight car racing game, and a game about building robots, all of which are well on their way. As is usually the case for this sort of event, I missed out on some other great looking stuff too, but them's the breaks.


Testing the Workshop

April's London playtesting trip was delayed to avoid the Easter weekend, and then disrupted largely because of the London Marathon that was on the same day, but it took place nonetheless, relocating to a coffee shop up the road from the usual pub.

Once everything had been sorted out we had a great afternoon of testing. I played a nice midweight Euro and a few plays of a small card-overlapping game, both of which were enjoyable and showed some real promise. I brought along the "Steampunk Workshop" game I posted about a couple of weeks ago; it was still very much an early-stage design, but had enough about it to be playable, and I had three volunteers to give it a go.

Using a bag of resources and discs to put them on does make the game look a little like Azul.
Feedback was generally supportive, but critical. It seems that the flow of the game is pretty good, but the players had thoughts on the three main decisions you make in the game: which resources to take, how to distribute newly arrived resources, and which gadgets to claim. All of these are OK decisions to make, but in practice they are generally trivial and obvious when it comes to it.

We had a bit of a discussion about this and agreed that one issue is due to the way that I naively derived the values of gadgets from the resources used for them. I could approach fixing this by adjusting the values of gadgets according to the usefulness of the abilities they provide, but another  possible approach (which is not mutually exclusive) would be to add a level of set collection, which could make gadgets naturally become more or less valuable to players according to what they have collected so far. An extension of this (thanks to Dean for the idea being "for free"!) is that you could arrange your acquired gadgets in a tableau, and if you can match the edges of adjacent cards, there could be a bonus -- either for scoring, or potentially some sort of bonus actions or modifiers.

This last idea about edge matching has actually given me a further idea, which is kind of a development branch from this game, and I have been toying with it over the last few days.  I expect I'll be talking about that in the not-too-distant future.

The distribution of resources to the hoppers is an interesting point too, as in the game's current state, when you put new resources out, the logical thing to do is to minimise the absolute value of the resources in any given hopper where you can.  This is possible because the resources are set up to have distinct values, both in terms of rarity and what they contribute to the victory point value of gadgets they buy.  The point above about making gadgets have different values according to circumstance could at least partially address this, but we also had some discussion about how resources get delivered to hoppers, which could be more random (no player agency in this part), or follow a set path, maybe with a "supervisor" figure circling the hoppers, indicating where the next delivery is placed. Another possibility would be to "recycle" resources as they are spent, putting them back into hoppers.  All of these could be a big improvement in available decisions, so I plan to try out some variants along these lines.

In the meantime, though, I'm temporarily diverting course to the "edge matching" tableau game to see where that goes. It is entirely possible that this could merge back in with the resources-in-hoppers game. We shall see...


London Bog Castles

Muppet that I am, I wrote up a post about my London playtest trip last month and then forgot to post it. I only realised this today, more than a month later.  So, please note that the following was written weeks ago...


This month's playtesting trip to London coincided with St Patrick's Day, and realising this a week or two in advance nudged me into dragging Corlea, my game about building a trackway through a bog in Iron Age Ireland, back onto the workbench and seeing if I could get it into shape following some serious problems with it a few months ago.

A big element of the original concept of the Corlea game was that building the trackway created new action spaces that you could use, and players would progress along it in a "Tokaido" style (the player at the back can move as far forward as they wish).  This never worked as I wanted it to, and I decided that this was a darling that I should kill, and so I rebuilt the game with something closer to a regular "worker placement" mechanism.  And that is what I tested.

The Corlea board could definitely do with a redesign: it gets hugely cluttered!

When playtesting it is important to know what you want to get out of the exercise and can also be useful to let your players know what you are wanting from them.  In this case, I knew that the balance of the scoring elements of the game, and the usefulness of various cards and possibly action spaces, was likely to be questionable at least.  I asked my testers (who were, remember, game designers themselves) to try to ignore game balance for now and just see how the game flows and help me decide if I had something that felt like a game rather than an exercise in frustration like the previous version.  If it passes this test, I can start looking at the details.

So how did we do?  Well, I think the game passed the initial smell test.  Quite a lot went right: turns zipped along, so downtime was not long, total playtime was just short of an hour, pretty much nailing the sweet spot I was aiming for, decisions felt reasonably interesting most of the time (though got less so later on), we saw some variety in styles of play thanks to some of the skill cards and, slightly comically and unexpectedly given that I was certain that the game had horrible balance problems, the end game scores were reasonably close.

There were plenty of problems we found.  For instance the set collecting part of crafting and burying offerings just didn't hang together properly, there was no lure to get players to try collecting "King's Favour" (one-off, instant effect) cards, later in the game the positioning of workers in various tasks became rather stale, we ran out of one of the stacks of cards, and various effects felt either over or under powered.  All these things are totally solvable, and I count this playtest as a huge success: the game overall mostly worked and I now have a list of things to look at next.  Onward!

After playing a couple of other games from another designer, we reached the point where everyone who had brought a prototype had had at least one play, and the afternoon was getting fairly late, so people started to leave.  I did, however, manage to get a quick test of my two-player Castle War card game with a designer I was chatting with.

This play of Castle War was basically a casual play-through, with only a minor tweak since my last try of it, hoping to largely get another perspective on the issues identified in other recent tests.  The outcome was that the minor tweak (which was just a slight nerfing of an effect) seemed to have been positive, and the feedback I got closely aligned with feedback and observations from my last play or two.  Essentially the game could do with a little more ability to manoeuvre troops, the unit types didn't seem as distinct as maybe they should (though maybe that's not actually a problem), and occasionally you can end up with a hand of cards that is just useless in your current situation, so we want a little more flexibility there.

So, all in all another really enjoyable and productive day. Thanks due to everyone who attended and made it so good, as always.


Working up a steam

Sometimes ideas just come. I'm not sure where this was from, but it has some similarities to the rather great game, Azul, and a couple of other things.  The idea was for a simple mechanism where you take items from a location (on a ring of spaces) and then draw a couple of items from a bag and place them on adjacent locations on that ring.  Then a game could be built around collecting and using those items.

Version Zero: minimum viable prototype.

I made a quick prototype with a bag of gems in three colours that I had lying around, a quick, hand-drawn board, and some cards scribbled on the back of some old cards from a previous prototype, to provide something to spend the gems on.  This was all perfectly fine for a proof-of-concept sketch of a game.  I had a couple of plays with this, playing multiple virtual "players" myself, and it seemed to be not terrible.  Bear in mind that this was pretty much the minimum I could do to make something that was actually playable, intended to check that a core mechanic is at least plausible, and as such I think I gave myself a thumbs up on this one, so decided to try progressing the game a little.

At this point, the game was just an abstract mechanism, and experience has taught me that I cannot develop an abstract game: I need some sort of theme to guide me in future decisions.  This theme might change later, but it would be something to work with along the way.  Fortunately, another project came to my rescue: this year I have decided to draw (and share online) something every day of the year if I can. This is old school: drawing on paper, though the implement I use to make the drawing can be whatever I fancy at the time, as can the subject matter.  As I was putting together this prototype, I drew a page of random steampunk-style gizmos, and this actually looked like it could be the start of a theme.

My first sheet of steampunky things, based on pics found all over the place.

So, what I ended up with was the idea that players are apprentices in a workshop, tasked with putting the finishing touches to various gadgets before they are dispatched to their final owners. You might even be able to make use of some of these gadgets to help you in your task, but if you break it you have to fix it!  The resources are still abstract coloured gems, but I can work on that later.

With this all in mind, I made use of the artwork I had, with a cog icon as a default for cards that didn't have their own picture, and made a new prototype for some solo testing once again, this time setting up a NanDECK script, pointing at a Google Sheet, to build cards that I can quickly print and cut out.  Some of the gadget cards had special abilities and a chance that they would break when you use them (they always work, but you roll a die to see if they then break), a cost in resources to complete, and a score for completing them (based on the resources -- which are of varied rarity -- required to complete them).

Version 1: more like a game, but not a good one yet.

It turns out that a bunch of MDF discs I had lying about were handy instead of having an actual board (though it starts looking a bit like Azul) and a silicone cupcake case is perfect to sit in the middle to collect discarded resources.

So at this point, the game works mechanically, but is somewhat dull.  My idea that you can use the abilities of gadgets is fine (though the abilities I had here weren't great) but the risk of breaking them was really harsh, and disincentivised using them quite dramatically.  I really should have learnt by now that there is a tendency for players to want to avoid risk of loss, and this sort of mechanism rarely works very well when I try it.

I am now overhauling the game, removing the potential punishment for using actions, but doubling down on the idea that there are actions to use.  I'm aiming to make this a game that has a similar complexity and pace to, say, Splendor, and to be fair, the flow of play (gain resources, then use resources to acquire things that win you the game) is fairly similar. I'm not too worried about that at the moment, and there are solid differences, but I will need to be sure that having an inspiration does not result in the game being too derivative.


What's been going on?

I've not been very good at blogging lately, but I have been moving a number of projects along, so I thought I'd just write a quick post about some of the things I have been working on lately.  If you know me personally or have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I tend to flit around between many projects and am not very good at concentrating on one thing until it is "done", but I am finding a sort of rhythm where there are a number of games that I bring back after months (occasionally years!) of lying fallow, and on going through a few iterations like this with several games, it looks like the time spent is beginning to pay off.

The main game I've been working on over the last few months is Scurvy Crew, a pirate game which has its origins some five years ago, but has finally got to a stage where I think it is mostly there.  I stripped out a load of complexity, while leaving some engine-building aspects of card play (where you can spend part of the game building an "engine", in this case a set of cards, which you then move on to exploiting as you push for victory), leaving a game that generally only takes five minutes to explain and around half an hour to play.  I'm still not happy with the end game, and the balance of the cards needs looking into, but I really feel I'm getting somewhere now.

Scurvy Crew heading towards a conclusion. 

The Castle War, based on a 12th century war in England, is a game that hasn't been on the back burners for more than a few weeks at a time, and is less than six months old as a project, but has come fairly quickly to be close to how I want it to be.  I think it is a bit more of a "Marmite" game than Scurvy Crew, but I'm pretty pleased with how it is going.  There are some fairly serious balance issues to work through, but it's a small game and I feel pretty confident about it right now.

Mid way through The Castle War, which saw some interesting swings and roundabouts.

In a very different style, Corlea is the closest thing I have made so far to a regular "Eurogame".  It's inspired by an archaeological site in Ireland, and is about building an oak trackway through a bog.  My last attempt at working on this one was last summer, and it just wasn't working, but I have stripped out one big element of the game (building sections of trackway that you could then use to activate actions within the game) and moved much closer to an ordinary "worker placement" game (you have "workers" that you put in various parts of the board to take actions).  I'm still having all sorts of trouble with this but I think it's now moving in the right direction, so we'll see how it goes over a couple of playtesting sessions.

A three-player (though all of them were me!) game of Corlea just before I abandoned it.

Apart from these things I have also created early prototypes of two (count them!) very different games inspired by the bizarre instances of snail-related warfare in early 14th century illuminated manuscripts.  Not much to report on those for now, but we'll see.


Pieces of Eight

So, another month another trip for playtesting in London, and a cracking afternoon it was too.  These particular meetups are generally run as a series of 90 minute slots, during each of which everyone divides up to sit around a few separate tables, with a game being played at each.  If there are shorter games in the mix, they often get teamed up so that one table plays through two (or sometimes more) games in a row.  Most recent playtests of Scurvy Crew (last month's London test notwithstanding) have been fairly consistent at around 40 minutes or less, so I was sharing with another designer for a spell.

The other game, a bicycle racing game, was really good, by the way, and is in one of those states where it just needs relatively small tweaks to become a great little game.

First off, I was delighted to find that this play of Scurvy Crew (now on version 8) took almost exactly 30 minutes for a 4-player game. I didn't time how long it took me to explain, but it can't have been much more than 5 minutes.  Of the players, one had played the game last month, and one had played it about a year ago, when it was in a very different state.

Version 8 was a fairly minor revision, mostly being some tidying up of terminology (still not perfect!) and some tweaks to presentation, but it was also trying out a different way of handling end game scoring, making the primary scoring a "Knizia-like" (you score the smallest set of things you have collected, thus incentivising you to diversify your collecting of stuff) system, with a tie-break based on the crew you have deployed. 

I think that this scoring did work out a bit better than the previous version, but it's still not right.  It seems a bit bizarre that I have an almost complete game now other than the fact that it has no satisfactory way to determine a winner.  This is something that needs fixing as soon as possible.

There is an often-quoted adage that you should "kill your darlings", and I think that one of my darlings in this context is the whole thing about collecting sets of treasure icons.  I have tried it in various forms, and while it's fun to be gathering treasure chests and jewelry, it has never really felt right.  I am now thinking that I might just go for a simpler option and simply have a points score for each merchant ship captured and see how that goes.

Several other issues came up, including some very interesting thoughts from one of the players who came up with a number of suggestions for ways to improve the thematic feel of the game.  He was absolutely right about them, though in the majority of cases, they had actually been part of the game in the past but changed for gameplay reasons.  It is really useful to get a "reality" check like this from time to time, as it is a reminder that remaining connected to the game's setting and themes is really useful, and where compromises are necessary they should be done carefully.  I don't think I will go back on these particular changes, but I shouldn't shut off the option completely.

Time to get to work on version 9, I think...


Of Snails and Grails

I was vaguely aware of this in the past, and I don't know what reminded me of this recently (I think it was just some surfing the web for cool pictures), but medieval monks seem to have had some bizarre ideas when illuminating manuscripts.  In particular, there was a period around the late 13th and early 14th centuries when a significant number of manuscripts were decorated with images of knights doing battle with giant snails.  Don't believe me? Here is a great blog post at the British Library (check out their Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for a wonderful resource of medieval stuff) with a load of examples and some context.
I have a personal challenge running at the moment to draw something every day
and this is my approximation of one of the snail battles depicted on a manuscript.
This is golden stuff for game inspiration.  There really need to be games about knights doing battle with snails.  I've been chatting to a friend who came to the same conclusion some time ago, so maybe we will be able to come up with something cool between us but I have also, after a few nights of weird dreams come up with a first attempt at a prototype of a light, trick-taking game based on the idea of knights fighting snails combined with a suggestion from a Twitter friend that grails would fit well with this.

This game involves simultaneous play of cards, tricks being played to collect sets of knight cards in assorted suits, get bonuses for collecting grail cards, and penalties for snails. We tried a three-player game of it today and it kinda worked, but it felt maybe a bit too chaotic.  I think I would like to play it a few times and with assorted player counts, as often trick taking games need everyone to get a feel for the game before it really shows its character.  The character of this game may be deeply flawed, but I need data to find that out.  On the plus side, as it is the game takes maybe ten minutes or so to play a hand, so it shouldn't be too hard to get more testing.

And here's what my quick, sharpie-scribbled first prototype looks like.
I don't think I see myself pitching this game to a publisher, but I think it could be a good exercise and if game play holds up after a bit more testing, working towards making it into a nice print and play game could be a good objective.  I just need to work on making medieval illumination style artwork.

And, of course, there is the possibility of a meatier game with the same thematic inspiration...


24 Hours of Pitchforks

It has been a while since I entered the 24 hour contest, but this weekend was the time to break the drought, with a game using the requirement "pitchfork", which is effectively an in-joke from a recent discussion amongst some of the contest regulars.

The idea that had been bouncing around my head since the start of the month was about a vampire, holed up in his castle, being assaulted by hordes of angry villagers with pitchforks and torches.  That sort of set-up is plenty enough to be a valid entry for the contest, and as I thought things over, a plan developed for a simple tower defence solitaire game, with lines of angry villagers attacking the castle from four sides, maybe with dice controlling what they do, and the player gets to (...mumble, mumble...) in defence.

Castle Crumpula: the first prototype. Totally functional, if nothing else.

By the time I started my 24 hours (and was officially allowed to actually make notes and stuff) I had managed to avoid forgetting everything I had been thinking about, and things had crystalised a bit.  I made an initial prototype, with cubes representing villagers, dice representing the strength of the four sides of the castle, and another die controlling where new villagers arrived.  I also made some cards with special powers on that the player could use to defend the castle, which you flip over to use, and flip back again when (...mumble, mumble...). I quickly added a few "special" villager mobs which brought friends with them, making the rate of their build-up less predictable.

Over a few test plays (including one with my long-suffering daughter) things developed some more. I added an additional "braver" type of villager, made tweaks to the vampire powers (actually changing them less than I thought I would) and gradually upgraded the prototype components to a submittable form.

The game is still very luck-based, probably with too low a chance of winning, and can sometimes take too long to come to a conclusion, but I'm pretty content with it.  I have all sorts of ideas for relatively simple ways to make the game graphically more interesting, and upgrade the components by mounting them on foamcore board, but the time constraint doesn't really allow such niceties, and I feel it is also good to keep things reasonably printer friendly.

Castle Crumpula: the version submitted to the contest. A bit prettier and a bit more functional.

So, if you are interested, here is my entry on the contest thread, which includes links to download the rules and components.  If you do take a look, then it's worth looking through the rest of the thread. There are some great looking other entries in there; it looks like this is a vintage month.

Edit: If you would like to see the full set of entries, here is the voting list.


Hunting the Scurvy Hare

We've just had the first of 2019's monthly Sunday afternoon playtesting session in London, which I make the third anniversary of my starting to attend the event.  This time I took along the venerable Scurvy Crew, in its seventh major iteration, along with my new, hand-drawn play mat to help organise the card layouts.

The group I had playtesting Scurvy Crew felt a bit different to what I usually get at the PlaytestUK meetups, and seemed to me a bit more like a slot I might have had at UK Games Expo.  Two of my players were game designers (one of whom had brought his own game, which I enjoyed testing later in the afternoon), while the others were enthusiastic people who just wanted to play something.

This resulted in a different type of playtest to what I was expecting.  Usually meetups like this result in some pretty intense and nit-picky feedback from designers, but the two non-designers in this group were inexperienced in this sort of game, and were struggling to get their heads around some of the concepts, so I instead got a good view of what parts of the game might confuse the unprepared.  The players were lovely and kept reassuring me that they were having fun, but the way they played and the questions they asked were quite revealing.
Heading towards the end, and the play mat works!

The main issue I saw recurring again and again was that they didn't understand the core card mechanism: you "recruit" crew cards by taking them into your hand from a display on the table, then "deploy" them by putting them face-up on the table in front of you, and "withdraw" them (take them back into hand) to use their skills and abilities.  Actually the "withdraw" action is a little more complex than this as you put the used cards aside and then take them into back your hand at the end of your turn.

I need to think about this.  While most players who have tried the game have had no difficulty with this mechanism, the fact that less-experienced gamers can get so mixed up is worth pondering.  It is entirely possible that the rules are fine and my explanation just didn't click with these players, or it might be that there is something more fundamentally wrong with the game.  Given feedback from the other players I am inclined to think that the terminology I use in the game may not be ideal, and also I need to figure out a cleaner way to explain the game.

Developing this thought a little more, I also think that the detail of I handle "withdrawing" a crew card to use its action is not quite right: you put a card aside to use it and then draw it into your hand at the end of your turn.  The reason that you can't just pick it up into your hand (something that you could do in an earlier version of the game) is to make the timing of card interactions clearer and prevent loop effects that would totally break the game.  I could get rid of the effects that are potentially loopable, but I think that they add more to the game in terms of potential "combos" (combine the right set of cards in the right way to make for exciting plays when you are able to do it) than they cause problems -- and this has been borne out by playtests so far.  So, on balance, I want these effects in play, so I need a mechanism to control timing of them.

I'm pondering this, but I might try simply flipping cards over when you use them rather than putting them aside.  It's more an explanation thing, but it might help a little.  We'll see...

One of the players also raised another issue which I was kinda aware of but hadn't really been thinking about.  Basically, two of the skill icons on crew cards ("navigation" and "repairs") work differently to the others: navigation can be withdrawn to give extra movement, and repairs used to counteract damage to your ship.  It's not too taxing, but it does mean two extra rules for players to remember, so if I can find a way to reduce that cognitive load a little it should make the game that bit easier to play.

Finally (for the purposes of this blog, anyway), a player suggested that another bit of complexity comes from the way that there are different actions available depending on whether your ship is in port or at sea.  I'm not sure that this really is an issue in itself (and can be addressed pretty well with a simple player aid card), but the additional comment he made was interesting: is it as much fun to be in port as at sea?  It clearly isn't: in port you are picking up crew cards and putting them on the table, while at sea you are blowing stuff up and amassing treasure!  I like the two-part nature of the game, but this comment tells me that I should at least consider making the port actions more powerful so that you can spend less time there.

Notwithstanding the handful of issues shown up, all the players said nice things about the game, which is really gratifying alongside the more actionable results.  Playtesting is mostly about trying to improve a game by finding its faults, but morale does need a boost from time to time.