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.


The Road Ahead

OK, so I have these standing objectives that pretty much roll over from last year: enter contests, pitch more games, work with other people more, playtest more.  This is all good stuff, and I'll keep working on that, but I should probably think of something new to focus on in 2019.

One thing that comes to mind is that Castle War has whetted my appetite for making historically-based games, however loose that basis is, and I have recently been enjoying reading history books, so I will plan to make more games based on historical events that I read about.  I have decided to keep a notebook with me when I am reading in case of sudden inspiration (this really is something I should/could have been doing beforehand) and I am sure that will result in a few notes being made.  Making this into a slightly more measurable objective, I'll plan to make at least three of these ideas into playable prototypes through the year.  The number three always seems a nice one for this sort of thing.
This has nothing to do with game design, but it turns out I enjoy drawing puffins.

Something I've not been so great on over the last year or two is actually making prototypes available in a print and play format -- apart from the ones I make for contests, that is.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but if I did so, it would mean that I always have games in a state where I can send them to interested parties.  I'll do better at this in 2019.  Shall we say three games that are not contest entries will be shared online (probably via a "work in progress" thread on Board Game Geek) through the year?

In the non-gaming part of my life I have a project on the go that I am refusing to admit is a new year's resolution: I have bought myself a sketch book and have been drawing something in it each day, with the intent to keep going for as long as time, patience, and willpower allows, and just drawing whatever I fancy on each occasion. So far, so good (at the time of writing, I'm on twelve in a row), and if you want to see my very amateurish art exploits, I'm sharing each picture on Twitter, on the principle that telling people you are doing something makes it more likely that you will do that thing.

I am also planning to continue getting training and practice in proofreading and editing skills.  I see this as "game design adjacent", a skillset that is useful to game publishers and may allow me to help people out more.  Plus I enjoy it and developing new skills is always worthwhile in itself.

But first up, Castle War and Scurvy Crew both need a little attention, so I'll be getting on with them, and there's a 2-player game contest on BGG that Castle War might be a decent fit for, if I get my arse in gear...


Rear View

Happy new year! As is traditional, it's time to take stock of where I am, what I am doing, and where I am going.  So let's kick that off with a look at how last year was for me from a game design point of view.

In my forward-looking post last year I set myself six objectives.  These were all pretty woolly (not bothering with SMART stuff in this part of my life), but were at least something that would help me in a direction of travel, at least in principle.
Here are my hands, trimming rules sheets (or, at least, pretending to do so for the camera).

My first two objectives were about pitching my games and putting myself out there.  The first of which I definitely achieved by dint of presenting my game, Invaded, via the speed-dating event at UK Games Expo, which was a great, if extremely tiring experience. Objective two was to arrange a few pitch meetings (primarily at UKGE), and in the event I only had one of these pre-arranged, plus another that was a follow-up from the speed-dating.  I'll count this one as a partial, but need to try harder.

Next up I was hoping to take part in the 24 hour game design contest on Board Game Geek at least three times, but only actually managed two, so that's another "try harder" grade.  I also intended to try for a bigger contest; I fell short of getting into the Hippodice contest or any other higher profile event, but I did submit to the BGG wargame contest, so I think that gives me a pass mark, though not a distinction.

I also wanted to do some more collaboration with other designers.  I didn't manage to progress the projects that I had started off with others the previous year, but I did get something new started, and we got around a couple of early iterations.  I'm not sure if this game will actually get anywhere, but I have an idea of what to try with it next, so hopefully in the next few weeks I'll give that a go.

Finally, playtesting, that perennial challenge.  I got to the monthly Sunday meetup in London most months of the year, plus managed to have playtesting sessions at UK Games Expo and Dragonmeet, had a few other playtesting opportunities here and there, and hosted "official" playtest sessions at my house 11 times.  This isn't bad really, but it's nowhere near enough to make real progress with my projects, so I need to work on this.  One of my problems here is my lack of confidence and willingness to lean on people for playtesting.  I don't think there is really any way around this other than learning to ask for help more and cultivating the right sort of relationships.

I say finally, but there was more to my life over the last year, even some bits that weren't related to gaming, but I'll try to keep more or less on topic.

An interesting thing for me was turning Egge on Thine Face from a 24 hour design project to a print and play game with commissioned artwork, and then getting some nice copies made to give away to friends as gifts.  This extended my experience a little with creating an art direction document, preparing files for print, and so on, all of which is somewhat outside my comfort zone, but I now have a slightly better understanding of now.

I continued my occasional proofreading exploits through the year, and ended up signing up for an introductory course in the art.  I still have the last module of the course to complete (I plan to do that in the next few days) but have enjoyed it and learnt a load -- particularly learning a load about how much I don't know.  I'm planning to take a follow-up course, but already I feel that my approach to proofreading has moved forward a fair bit.

These last couple of points have reinforced my personal conviction that I do not want to be a publisher, but learning a bit more about some skills that are useful to publishers may be good for me in general, particularly if I ever try to make a living in this business.

I have had a few spells of just struggling to get motivated to do anything, but I'm finding that talking to people is often a help, but otherwise just trying to be kind to myself and not worry about it seems the way forward.  I have started getting back to reading books about history (lately it has been mostly early medieval Britain), which is proving to be an interesting diversion and also a source of inspiration -- one of my new games last year was inspired by one of these books.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has playtested any of my games over the last year, and everyone who has given other help, advice and support, including you for reading this blog!  You are all amazing and part of what makes game design such a great hobby to be part of. It's hard going at times, but it's the people who make it all worthwhile.